- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

CARLINVILLE, Ill. (AP) - Brooklyn Armstrong always wore her seat belt, except on the day it could have saved her life.

The 16-year-old sophomore at Carlinville High School was thrown from a pickup truck on an icy December morning last year. Her body was dragged along nine guard rails and mutilated beyond recognition. Police said if she’d been wearing her seat belt, she likely would have lived.

The news shocked and devastated her mother, Kristy Armstrong-Ott, who knew Armstrong insisted on wearing her seat belt even on a short drive to the neighborhood mailboxes. Today, Armstrong-Ott still scrolls through the hundreds of pictures in her daughter’s phone, and every snapshot of Armstrong in a car shows her wearing a seat belt.

“That day, why she didn’t have a seat belt on, we will never understand,” Armstrong-Ott said.

She and Armstrong’s stepfather, Andy Ott, heard a knock on the door at 10:36 a.m. Dec. 29, followed by the words “Brooklyn’s gone.” Her mother knew that day would change the rest of her life, but she didn’t realize at the time just how much it could change someone else’s.

In Armstrong’s memory, the family has launched a local campaign for seat belt awareness and has plans to take it statewide. The Illinois Department of Transportation reported that, as of Thursday, 595 people have been killed this year in traffic crashes and at least 174 of those killed weren’t wearing seat belts.

Armstrong’s mother believes that number needs to drop to zero.

Local impact

The campaign started with an anonymous letter just a few weeks after Armstrong’s death.

The Otts received a card from a family of five that had previously been lax about seat belt safety. After hearing Armstrong’s story, the family would say “buckle up for Brooke” when getting into a car. The letter said the family was in a serious crash on the way home from a vacation, and the writer wasn’t sure they would have lived if they all hadn’t been buckled in.

“We get this card in the mail, and I thought, ‘Maybe we’re supposed to do something bigger with this,’ ” Armstrong-Ott said.

The campaign kicked off with placing plaques featuring Armstrong’s cheerleading photo in the window of every restaurant in town. The caption reads: “Buckle Up for Brooklyn. No More Cheers, Only Tears!” The family put the logo on coffee mugs, banners, T-shirts and bumper stickers. Order forms from people Armstrong-Ott had never met began flooding into the home from several states, and all proceeds from sales go toward seat belt education and awareness.

The Otts, who both work for the Illinois Department of Corrections, rallied the support of local law enforcement to their cause. Macoupin County sheriff’s deputy Shawn Kahl, who is running for sheriff, said the county has lost several teenagers to car crashes in the past six years or so and that many of them weren’t wearing seat belts.

“Most of the time, when you don’t have your seat belt on, you’re going to be thrown from the vehicle,” Kahl said. “That’s almost every time.”

Armstrong was on her way to her boyfriend’s grandmother’s home in the Quad Cities when the crash happened on Interstate 74 in Peoria. The four other passengers suffered serious injuries but lived. Police reported no one in the vehicle was wearing a seat belt.

Icy conditions kept Armstrong’s mother and stepfather from driving to Peoria that morning. The couple waited at home until eventually they identified her body through images. They recognized boots she’d just gotten that Christmas and a small mole on her chin.

“We knew it had to be her,” her mother said.

Boosting awareness

Armstrong was a popular girl and was deeply involved in her school and church. She cheered for Carlinville High School and played on its soccer and volleyball teams. She served on student council. The school commemorated her with a memorial page in the 2013-14 year book and retired her soccer number.

Today, her jerseys hang in the closet in her old bedroom above a stack of opened but unused gifts from that Christmas. Armstrong-Ott couldn’t bring herself to return them.

The connections Armstrong built through church and school showed the day she was buried. Funeral directors stopped counting guests after the 1,200th person arrived. Mark Gillock, acting master sergeant for Illinois State Police District 9, said Armstrong’s death has brought a new local light to the seat belt movement. The crash robbed the community of a young girl, but it also created an army of grieving family and friends.

“I think it just took more of a strong hold in this community because they lost a young person,” Gillock said.

More than 300 people attended a “Buckle Up for Brooklyn” seat belt awareness event Sept. 20 at the Carlinville Elks Lodge.

Kahl hopes Armstrong’s death inspires a new wave of seat belt education. He said IDOT’s “Click It, or Ticket” campaign gives the wrong impression about the seat belt’s purpose, whereas Armstrong’s story can serve as an inspiration.

“In my eyes, it’s not the reason we want kids buckling up,” Kahl said. “It’s to save their lives, not to keep them from getting tickets.”

The Otts stress the importance of driver awareness, and they want to see Armstrong’s story featured in the Illinois driver education program. The couple believes a driver should never transport any passenger of any age unwilling to wear a seat belt.

“Even if it’s two blocks, (the driver is) the responsible party to ensure that everyone in that vehicle is buckled up,” her stepfather said.

Kahl would like to see more education at the elementary and high school levels. He said often young children take the seat belt law to heart, while adults and teenagers may forget it in a busy moment.

“The tragedy itself is terrible, but I think what they’re doing is a great thing,” Kahl said. “I just think that it’s something that could be grown upon. I hope it’s something that goes outside of the Carlinville area.”

If Armstrong-Ott has it her way, that’s just what will happen. Eventually she hopes to use her daughter’s story to advocate for seat belt laws in other states. Illinois has a mandatory seat belt law for adults, but neighbors such as Missouri haven’t been so proactive.

In Missouri, 757 people died traffic crashes in 2013, and 60 percent of those killed weren’t wearing a seat belt, according to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that only 80 percent of Missourians wore their seat belts in 2013, compared with 93 percent in Illinois.

Still changing lives

The Otts try to focus their energy on preventing other deaths rather than questioning their daughter’s. They’ll never know the reasoning behind her decision not to wear a seat belt that day. Armstrong is not alive to share it.

“The hardest part is we can’t figure out why that was the day she didn’t wear her seat belt, of all days,” her stepfather said.

The campaign has created a purpose and an overarching reason to adjust to a new normal. Still, that new normal is difficult. For the first four months after the accident, Armstrong-Ott would wake up in a panic thinking her daughter was late for school. Seeing the new photos of the Carlinville High School cheerleaders in the local paper was hard. Armstrong should have been standing with them.

The Halloween decorations went up on Sept. 1 in the Ott home as usual, but the Christmas decorations might be more painful. Christmas was Armstrong’s favorite holiday, and the mother-daughter duo would put up decorations every year on Nov. 1, just in time for Armstrong’s Nov. 2 birthday. She’d be 17 this year.

Photos in Armstrong’s phone show her ringing a Salvation Army bell at Christmastime. The teenager was passionate about many causes. She saved her money and gave to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital every year. Armstrong was known for wearing pink the entire month of October in support of breast cancer awareness. It wasn’t uncommon for her to ask her mother if they could bake a pie or a dish for a family having a rough time.

She earned her driver’s license just a few weeks before the crash and eagerly signed up as an organ donor. She even looked into getting organ donor license plates for her car. She hoped that her death could save someone else’s life, but the crash destroyed her body. None of her organs could be salvaged.

Still, her family has seen her save lives in other ways.

What started with an anonymous card from a grateful family has grown into dozens of others telling Armstrong’s mother they’re taking seat belt safety seriously for the first time.

“She just keeps changing lives,” Armstrong-Ott said.

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Source: The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, http://bit.ly/1vrNPuT

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Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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