There’s no question that in today’s connected world, we love our cellphones. In fact, most of us have trouble putting them down even when we’re behind the wheel. Unfortunately, cellphones and driving can be a deadly combination—a fact Sandra LaRose knows all too well.
In August 2018, LaRose’s 16-year-old daughter, Kailynn Bursic-Panchuk, died after her car was hit by a train in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Kailynn had been using her phone’s GPS to navigate and didn’t see or hear the train coming.
She had been driving for less than a year.
Kailynn’s tragic story is the subject of one of eight videos that will be featured in Operation Lifesaver’s 2019 #STOPTrackTragedies campaign during Rail Safety Week (September 23 to 29). Each video tells the personal—and often heartbreaking—story of someone affected by a rail incident.
In Sandra LaRose’s video, she talks about Kailynn’s death and how it has inspired her to educate others about the dangers of using cellphones while driving. Here is some of her conversation with Operation Lifesaver.
How would you describe Kailynn?
Kailynn was beautiful inside and out. I think she was an old soul. She was athletic, smart, gorgeous, and popular—she had it all. What stood out about Kailynn was her compassion, empathy and generosity. But she was also sassy and had the most infectious laugh and smile. She brightened a room. She had charisma and confidence beyond her years. She loved school, loved animals, loved to work at her two jobs and loved her family and friends. She was one of a kind.
How attached was she to her phone?
After school, she would be on her phone, snapping pictures, using Snapchat and Instagram. You know, the typical teenager things. I don’t know a teenager who’s not like that. But when we were in the car and I was driving, she would give me trouble if I answered my phone. She would be like, “Mom, that’s illegal!”
I know she used Bluetooth for her music. I gave her trouble for that, because you’re looking down at your phone when you change the song. But of course, she didn’t listen to me. Every time she pulled into the yard, you could hear the boom, boom, boom of her stereo. And the loud music played a part in her accident. She never heard the train whistle, so I know she had her music blaring.
How did you find out she had been hit by a train?
Her friend Cameron sent me a Facebook message and asked me to phone a number. So I dialed it, and it was the RCMP. The RCMP told me Kailynn had been in an accident, and that STARS (helicopter ambulance) were taking her to Regina and she would be there in 20 minutes. At that point, I didn’t know anything about the train. But I knew it had to be bad if she was in the helicopter.
On our way in—my husband was driving—I called Cameron and asked him what happened, and it was dead silence. I said, “Cameron what happened?” And then he said, “A train hit her.” I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest.
What do know about the accident itself?
The train hit her and the car went rolling down the track, but it only rolled onto the driver’s side. It just sort of tipped onto the driver’s side. I think the crew had the car upright by the time the first responders got there. She even gave the crew her name at the scene, but then she started convulsing. She had nothing except for a head injury. She only had one surface burn on her shin. But they told me she had severe shearing, which is equivalent to shaken baby syndrome.
She died the day after her 17th
birthday. They told me on the afternoon of her birthday that if she pulled through, she would have no quality of life. At 8:52 a.m. on August 22, they declared her brain dead.
How do you know the phone played a part in the crash?
The police constable who came to the farm to give me back her phone—because I wanted to see if there were pictures on it for her celebration—told me the reason for the crash was distracted driving. Google Maps was activated and she had Snapchat notifications. Now, I’m not saying she was on Snapchat, but her phone was open and active, so everything would be coming through. They knew Google Maps was activated was because the blue dot on Google maps was exactly where her car was.
What’s your message when it comes to using a phone while driving?
Get the hell off your phone. There is nothing important enough to take that call while you’re driving. Nobody would drive with a beer bottle in his or her hand because it’s illegal. So, if you wouldn’t drive with a beer bottle in your hand, why would you use a cellphone? Ignore it, put it on “do not disturb.” Ever since Kailynn’s accident, my purse goes into the back seat and my phone does too. Because if it’s sitting on the seat next to me or on the console and it flickers, you’re going to look down. And if you’re looking down, you’re not looking at the road.
I’ve stopped next to someone at a red light who was on his phone, and I told him to get off his phone. He told me to mind my own goddamn business. Well, if someone had minded my 16-year-old’s business, she wouldn’t be sitting in an urn in my living room right now. I didn’t get to see her graduate. I’m not going to have grandbabies, and I’m not going to be able to plan her wedding or help her move into her first house. I’ve lost everything, and so have her friends.