Turning Tragedy into a Crusade to Save Lives

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare—and Amanda Kirchner’s parents have lived through it. In August 2016, Amanda was killed by a train in Westminster, Colorado while taking a shortcut across the tracks on her way to work. She didn’t hear the train’s warning whistle because she was wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
Now, her father Ashley, mother Sue, and stepfather Mark are working to keep other young people from losing their lives. In December 2017, they started #OneEarOut, an educational campaign to get people to keep one ear uncovered when wearing headphones—whether walking, cycling or driving.
We spoke to Amanda’s father, Ashley Kirchner, about the family’s campaign to educate others about the need to always be alert around tracks and the dangers of trespassing on railway property.
Can you tell us what you know about Amanda’s accident?
She basically took a shortcut that day. Unbeknownst to us, it was a shortcut she had taken before. There was a section of this shortcut where she would walk along the train tracks. And as we all know, trains aren’t the exact width of the tracks—they extend two or three feet on either side. So unfortunately, a train came up behind her, fully loaded, unable to stop, and basically side-swiped her. From what we understand, the conductors and engineers were able to see her down the track and made every attempt to get her attention and slow down, but with her headphones on, there was just no way for her to hear it.
When did you realize headphones had played a key role in her death?
Well, the police officers told us they knew she was wearing headphones, and the train conductors could see it. And the headphones were literally in five pieces, scattered around, which I now have in a bag. And she’s my daughter. I watched her numerous times, coming home from school, and she’d be dancing along the sidewalk with her headphones on. This child loved music from the day she was born; music was her life. We had those conversations, discussions and arguments, even at home. We’d be trying to get her attention in her room and she’d be wearing headphones. There was not a day where we didn’t say, “Amanda, please take your headphones off, your earbuds out, we’re trying to talk to you, there are other people here.” It was just an everyday thing with her.
Why did you decide to start the #OneEarOut campaign?
Not even a week after it happened, Mark and I were trying to figure out what we could do. And we just thought, can we, in some way, shape or form, raise awareness? How can we do that? And that’s when this came about. It is just about raising awareness.
I’m not here to walk up to somebody and say, “Take those darn things off.” We all love music—I love music just as much as the next person. And I will say that I was guilty of wearing earbuds too. But I’ve come to realize how much I have to rely on being able to hear what goes on around me in traffic—or with cars, bicycles, joggers, anything—and I recognize that I wasn’t able to hear before, when I had earbuds in.

Do you see the campaign changing things?
Yes. Not only do we actually have people sending us messages by email or through Facebook, telling us their stories, but we also have a wall of pledges. People will send us pictures showing that they pledge to keep one ear out. Literally, I’ve had folks walk up to me and tell me they’ve heard about it. Or I’ll see somebody, sometimes a total stranger on the street, with one ear out and I will approach them and try to understand why they’re doing it, and then explain to them why it’s important that they do.
What do you hope to accomplish?
More awareness amongst everyone—primarily students, because that is the age group that I see this happening with a lot. But just everyone in general. We have had good response from all age groups, but young adults in particular. We want people to understand the safety risk when you have your ears covered.
We have a lofty idea of reaching the companies that make these headphones and asking them to include a visible warning that says “Hey, you need to be aware of your surroundings when you are out and about.” Again, I’m not out to tell them they’re making a product that puts people in danger, because I can use the product when I’m sitting at home and be perfectly fine. My goal is to make people understand that if they are going out walking around, riding a bicycle, jogging or whatever, they should not use headphones to cover both ears. That’s all I want. Can we achieve that? Maybe with enough promotion, enough conversation. That’s what we are trying to do.