Every time Katie Mathews speaks to teens and thinks of the futures that lay ahead of them, she rededicates herself to her work, intent on ensuring they fully understand the preciousness of their own lives and the consequences of choices they may make while driving.
Katie talks about the dreams she had of playing collegiate basketball, the camping trips she used to take with friends, the parties she attended, the afternoons she spent lounging on the beach and how much she loved to ride four wheelers.
When Katie was 16, she also had the world at her feet. Back then, Katie wasn’t a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, and she wants teens to know that she might not be today if she and her friend had made better decisions as they drove down the highway together one night.
Katie and her 16-year-old friend were headed to a party at around 10:30 p.m. on May 6, 2006. Needing directions, Katie called a friend who was already at the party, and she put the phone on speaker so the driver could hear the directions.
The girls realized they were about to pass the highway exit they needed. The driver made a quick turn and lost control of the vehicle. It skidded off the highway and flipped four times before coming to a rest.
Katie was badly injured and was rushed to the hospital. After spending two months in a coma and suffering a traumatic brain injury, doctors told Katie she would never walk again.
“With some help from my family, I was finally able to accept what had happened to me,” Katie said. “But for a long time it was very difficult to come to terms with it.”
Katie, like many teens, did not realize that car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, or that drivers ages 16 to 19 crash at three times the rate of more experienced drivers.
She also didn’t know that driving at nighttime is risky for new drivers, or that distractions, such as teen passengers and cell phones, can be especially deadly. Carrying one teen passenger can increase a teen driver’s crash risk by as much as 48 percent; drivers using cell phones, regardless of age or experience, are four times as likely to crash.
The newly-licensed driver’s crash risk significantly increased with Katie in the passenger’s seat and the girls’ distracting cell phone conversation. Driving at night, which is far more complex than driving during the day, did not help matters.
Since Katie didn’t realize the dangers teens face on the roads or the risks involved with using cell phones while driving, she has made it her mission to raise awareness. She joined the HEARTS Network because it gives her a national platform for sharing her story.
Being in a wheelchair has complicated Katie’s life – her collegiate basketball aspirations died, camping trips became much more challenging, and even going to the beach was harder – she had to find wheelchair accessible beaches and needed to be careful not to overheat. Her new normal compelled her to educate others about the dangers and help them avoid bad choices like the one she and her friend made when they decided to use a cell phone while driving. Katie began speaking to youth about distracted driving and teen driving. She quickly realized the advocacy efforts were her new passion.
“By sharing my story with young drivers, I hope I can keep them from suffering the same fate that I endured, or worse,” Katie said.