Dr. Patrick and Dr. Theresa Atkinson, both mechanical engineers and experts in crash safety, were more educated than most about the risks and statistics related to automobile accidents in the U.S. What they weren't aware of, or prepared for, were the aftereffects of a Feb 22, 2003, crash.
The Atkinson family of four was traveling along I-69 in Michigan from Lansing to Flint, when an out-of-control vehicle crossed a snowy median. The broadside impact on the driver's side crushed their minivan. Theresa, who was seated in the front opposite to the impact experienced only minor injuries. Patrick had to be cut out of the vehicle and spent many months recovering from his injuries.
Their daughters were seated in the center positions in the 2nd and 3rd rows of the vehicle. Elise, then two and a half years old, suffered only cuts and bruises thanks to her car seat. However, Emma, then nearly 7 months old, was seated in the portion of the vehicle which sustained the greatest damage. She died from her injuries the day after the crash.
In the weeks and months following the accident, Pat and Theresa became more and more frustrated with the lack of resources for crash survivors and the families of crash victims. Focusing their attention and expertise on this, the Atkinsons have developed the Crash Survivor's Network (CSNetwork), a combination of information targeted at preventing injuries and support services to help people after a crash. The CSNetwork web site will be officially launched Feb. 15 at Kettering University as part of National Child Passenger Safety Week, Feb. 13 through 17.
More than three million Americans were killed or injured in automobile crashes in 2004. Crash survivors and families of victims often are faced with legal, emotional and financial issues that can seem overwhelming. The Atkinsons understand what these families are going through.
"One of the reasons we started the Crash Survivor's Network," said Theresa, director of the CSNetwork board, "is to give people some sense of what to expect that first year after the crash. The whole experience after the crash was so frustrating at times, because we couldn't find information, didn't know what to do and we didn't have anyone to ask. I thought for sure there must be some national group for crash survivors with suggestions of what people could do. It wasn't there - so we decided to create it," she said.
The most visible part of the CSNetwork, a non-profit group, is the website at www.crashsurvivorsnetwork.org.The site contains information on grief, post traumatic stress, economic issues, disability, and vehicle safety and occupant protection and is accessible to persons who might need to use assistive technology to surf the web due to a disability. The group plans to take information from the web and produce it in brochure form and print versions for hospitals and funeral homes to distribute to people who may not have access to the internet. "That is our main thrust on the post-crash side," she said.
The organization also collaborates with local child safety seat agencies, works with the medical community to improve education about vehicle safety and the proper use of child safety seats, and advocates with state government to improve child restraint legislation.
"On the prevention side, we have had life-sized posters of kids who are booster seat size made for local hospitals so parents can see a good visual of what size a child should be in a booster seat and where car seat information can be distributed," Theresa said. Posters and car seat brochures have been distributed to McLaren Regional Medical Center, Hurley Medical Center and Genesys Health Systems all in the Flint area, and William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.
In addition to providing preventative information and post crash support resources, the Atkinsons see the CSNetwork as representing the power of numbers. "The advantage of the network is that a larger group will have a voice to make changes," said Theresa.
Part of that larger voice is partnerships with a variety of organizations and institutions including Kettering University and the Greater Flint Kids Safe Coalition.
"The partnership with Kettering has to do with the injury prevention aspect of the CSNetwork," Theresa said. "Pat and I are both bio-mechanical engineers, who have been involved in occupant protection research for a long time," she said. The CSNetwork and Kettering will partner to offer child seat checks to parents, while giving them an opportunity to see how the seats work in a simulated crash.
"We think that this type of experience will help parents understand the importance of always using the right kind of seat for their child. Working with Kettering also gives us access to a group of great students who want to make a difference in vehicle safety. By volunteering at these events and working with the community we think they will have a much better sense for the overall importance of their work," said Theresa.
As part of his service to CSNetwork, Pat, an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering, is meeting with Flint-area family practitioners and Pediatric Residency programs to present crash safety and child occupant safety information to those groups. "We see them as the best way to get to families with this information," said Theresa. "Most kids will at least get their shots," she said, "and when they see the doctor it would be great if they could also get the basic information on which car type of child seat is right for their child and some tips on how to use it."
Crashes are the number one cause of death for children. Currently doctors and pediatricians don't offer car seat advice because it's not part of their medical school curriculum. "We need to educate doctors so they feel comfortable providing this information," Theresa said.
To do this the Atkinsons would like to approach medical schools and the American Academy of Pediatrics to request that they include a crash safety curriculum as part of their board certification, so all doctors would have some training in car seat safety.
The CSNetwork has also added its voice to that of the Greater Flint Kids Safe Coalition currently lobbying in support of a bill before the Michigan House of Representatives focused on increasing the child seat requirements to include keeping kids in appropriate child seats until they are 4 feet 9 inches tall. Currently Michigan legislation only requires children to be in child restraints until age four, "but that is not the best or safest place for them," said Theresa.
"It's frustrating for me," she said. "Right now there are thirty three other states that have laws that protect kids four and older, and we don't have that here in Michigan, despite the fact that the auto companies are based here and the companies that make seat belts and air bags and other powerhouses of safety research are here. In my opinion Michigan should be leading the nation in child restraint legislation," Atkinson said.
As director of the CSNetwork board, Theresa Atkinson is the force that pushes everything forward. "I try to bring it all together, all the people and resources that want to help or be involved" she said. "Currently the CSNetwork and its partners and board are all voluntary. I expect we'll get more support people," she said, "we're a small group now, but I hope the little things we can do will make a difference for people."
Written by Dawn Hibbard and Theresa Atkinson