STATESBORO – The latest stop on the Lutzie 43 Foundation’s road to save lives took Mike Lutzenkirchen to Georgia Southern University, where he talked to a theater full of high school students about the dangers of distracted and impaired driving.
Lutzenkirchen knows that danger too well.
His son Philip, a high school All American at Lassiter High before going on to play tight end at Auburn and serve as a captain on the Tigers 2010 national championship team, was killed June 29, 2014, after leaving a party in LaGrange.
Philip, who wore jersey No. 43 and was called Lutzie by Auburn fans, was a backseat passenger in the SUV when it ran through a stop sign at a T-intersection at 77 mph and rolled over.
The Lutzie 43 Foundation was established soon afterward in Philip Lutzenkirchen’s memory. Mike Lutzenkirchen serves as its executive director, and the foundation is partnering with the Georgia Department of Transportation in a series of “Safe Driving Summits” targeting students in high school and college around the state.
Numbers from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety show why. Drivers from age 15 to 24 made up only 16 percent of all drivers in 2020, but accounted for 20 percent of all drivers involved in a fatal or serious injury crash and 42 percent of speeding drivers involved in a crash.
That age group also made up 22 percent of drivers either confirmed or suspected of driving distracted in 2020. It’s a trend that is “moving in the wrong direction,” said Lutzenkirchen, who avoids using the word accident when talking about what’s happening on roads.
“At the high school level the No. 1 cause of traffic crashes and deaths continues to be distracted driving, and in college it’s combination of distracted and impaired driving,” Lutzenkirchen said. “These are crashes, they’re caused by human error, they are avoidable situations.”
Among the students organizers hope to convince to put down their phones and pay attention to the road, are young drivers like Bryan County Middle High School sophomores Alex Asselin, Jada Conley and Kaleigh Temple. They were among an estimated 300 high schoolers –including several from BCMHS and Richmond Hill High School – who spent more than half a day Sept. 13 at GS’s Performing Arts Center learning subjects ranging from insurance to getting first-hand perspective from public safety officers, first responders, tow and truck drivers and trauma doctors and nurses.
Students also heard from State Transportation Board Secretary Anne Purcell, Georgia State Patrol Lt. Maurice Swain and, before being bussed back to their respective high schools, Jacee Beth Thomas, who was driving across railroad tracks near her home in Brantley County in May 2016 when her car was hit by a train. She was 16 at the time, and a champion barrel racer. After being life flighted to a Jacksonville hospital, Thomas, who suffered traumatic brain injury, has spent the last six years in rehabilitation.
“If I had to grade the summit I think I would give it a 7 out of 10, they really did try to make safe driving more fun and interesting to the younger generation, it’s just hard to get that point across,” said Asselin. “If a conversation ever came up about this summit I would certainly recommend teenage drivers attempt to go to it next year. My biggest complaint about the summit was I feel like they try to use fear tactics and slippery slope too much, they need to try to do a better job of conveying their message while not scaring children out of driving.”
At the same time, students said they gained an appreciation for everything from the expense of driving – thank to State Farm Insurance – to what truck drivers face when they’re on the road. Students got to sit in the cab of a semi and see what drivers don’t see, and also learned how hard it is to stop something weighing 80,000 pounds.
“Whenever you’re on the interstate, you don’t realize how much they can’t see because of all the blind spots they have,” said Conley, who has her learner’s permit and said she knows five people her age who’ve been in accidents. She said the event will make her think twice before becoming “one more statistic, one more accident.”
Temple, who also has her learner’s permit, said a story from Swain will stick with her. He told students about a student running late for school and picking up a buddy, but not buckling up, then trying to pass a slow moving truck on a four-lane road and pulling out in front of a faster car in the left-hand lane and getting hit from behind. “Everything I do in a car, I’m going to think about it,” she said. “Do I really need to text my mom right now to tell them where I’m at? Is it really necessary? Is it worth someone’s life?”
And Mike Lutzenkirchen’s story resonates.
He and his family were out when they arrived home shortly before the July 4 weekend and found a post it note with a number on the front door.
After returning the call, and getting a second number to call, he learned Philip had died.
“That’s how my wife and I found out our son had died, a post it note sticking on the front door,” Lutzenkirchen told students.
Purcell, who has long served the coast as both a state representative from Rincon and on the state transportation board, said the story behind the Lutzie 43 Foundation is one all driver’s should keep in mind. “As a mother, grandmother, and someone with a wonderful husband, I worry anytime a loved one or good friend gets behind the wheel,” she said. “Safety for the Georgia Department of Transportation is important. We build roads and bridges and do a heck of a lot of other things, but when you ride through a construction zone, how many people slow down?
Not very many.” Lutzenkirchen said the campaign to end distracted driving may take awhile, but it will happen. He points to the attention brought to drunk driving by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others. “It’s an interesting dynamic. I’m not a psychologist, but studies have shown that to make a change in more than 50 percent of the human population it takes seven years,” he said. “How do we make a change, well, we start with them young and we say you don’t need to be holding a cell phone when you’re driving.”
That’s where the 43 key seconds come in, he added. Drivers regardless of experience level should take that time after getting behind the wheel t o make sure they have a clear head, clear hands, clear eyes and then buckle up before cranking up, he said.
Next: Read what truck drivers see out there.