How Elected Politics Saved Her Life
From Political Ticket to Seatbelt Click-It
With no legislative duties on her schedule, Oct. 9 was a typical day for Sally Kelly. She spent that Friday at her full-time job as Vice-President of Member Communications for a large flooring retail cooperative. Sally’s other job was serving in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Just like any other end to the work day, Sally started her VW Beetle, fastened the seat belt, and set out for home. It was dusk. A light mist blanketed the road. Sally was planning to pick up her husband and then drive to a dinner party in honor of a dear friend. After turning onto Route 4, only one-and-a-half miles stood between Sally and the safety of her driveway when the unthinkable happened. She thought it was the end of her life; a moment that haunts her to this day.
As she was approaching the local veterinarian’s office, a dark mini-van, which should have passed safely to her left, crossed the yellow lines and into Sally’s lane. Despite her efforts to avoid the vehicle careening toward her, Sally could not escape a head-on crash.
One Year Earlier
Sally has lived in New Hampshire since 1974. The state does not have a primary or secondary enforcement seat belt law, meaning adults cannot be ticketed under any circumstance for failing to wear a seat belt. Sally was a sporadic seat belt user, and as a state legislator she opposed legislating adults wear them.
Sally’s perspective began to change after she was asked to lead a committee to create a seat belt study commission. She opposed the effort but, in the interest of finding middle ground, Sally agreed to the creation of the commission if it included a balance of viewpoints, including those who were against any mandate. An agreement was struck and the commission was created.
As the work of the commission moved forward, Sally listened to testimony both for and against stronger seat belt laws. She learned automobiles are built differently than they were 20 years ago. Sally began to better understand how far technological advancements have come and how they protect vehicle occupants. Perhaps the most important learning was life-saving airbags and other safety features are most effective when passengers are buckled-in. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “seat belts dramatically reduce risk of death and serious injury. Among drivers and front-seat passengers, seat belts reduce the risk of death by 45%, and cut the risk of serious injury by 50%.”
At the conclusion of the commission’s work, Sally, a long-time opponent of stronger seat belt laws and sporadic seat belt user, had become a staunch seat belt supporter. She even introduced a mandatory seat belt law, which passed the House one year later but failed in the Senate by three votes.
Route 4 – Accident Scene,
The sound of screeching tires and crunching metal filled her ears, confusion overtook her mind, but the extreme pain—the most incredible pain she had ever felt—overtook Sally’s body. As she waited for help to arrive, Sally thought about her husband and daughter. She prayed it wasn’t her time to die. She screamed for someone to call her husband, Doug, but didn’t recognize him when he arrived.
Sally was extricated from the mangled mess of her blue VW 45-minutes later. She was alive and thankful, but couldn’t ignore the pain from 10 broken ribs, a broken left clavicle, seven broken bones in her right foot and countless abrasions, requiring many stiches. Sally’s totaled vehicle responded as it should in a frontal collision. The front-end absorbed much of the impact, the drivers’ side airbag deployed and Sally’s seat belt held her securely in the vehicle as various safety features responded around her.
Sally spent months in a wheelchair as she recovered. The physical wounds are mostly healed, but the psychological scars remain. It took a long time to get back behind the wheel. She even practiced driving in a parking lot as if preparing for her first drivers’ license road test. She drives that stretch of Route 4 and is reminded of her crash nearly every day. Some days she takes an alternate route.
Today, Sally is grateful to the dedicated seat belt advocates who urged her for stronger seat belt laws. It is also not lost on her that her foray into public service likely saved her life. If not for her new-found habit of always wearing a seat belt, her crash could have been a fatality.
Sally did not seek re-election to the State Legislature in 2014, but is no less an advocate for increased awareness of passenger safety issues. The crash strengthened her resolve to improve seat belt use in her state and while still serving in the legislature, she succeeded at improving child booster seat standards. On any given day you might find Sally carrying a unique reminder of her path from a non-seat belt using state legislator to a staunch passenger safety advocate. Her handbag, a gift from seat belt supporters, is made from recycled seat belts—a fashionable but important reminder that a seat belt saved her life.
“I wear a seat belt not only for my own safety but also because I love my family and friends,” said Sally. “Our lives have a profound impact on those around us—what would their lives be like if you were killed or seriously injured in an auto accident? If nothing else, buckle-up because you care about those who love you.”