Honoring Ashley - The Art of Driving
Published: Tuesday, August 3, 2010
The story is all too familiar. It was a beautiful June afternoon filled with the anticipation of the close of another school year and pride in a year full of wonderful accomplishments.
Ashley was one of those great teenagers every parent is proud to claim and every teacher wants in their class. She was very bright, already taking advanced placement (AP) classes in tenth grade, a competitive gymnast, and had a reputation for an unstoppable work ethic. Ashley was a friend to all, thus everyone was her friend. But most of all she was the light of my life.
As I neared our home I saw a road block, police and rescue workers were everywhere and a car that looked all too familiar was wrapped around a tree. I knew at that moment she was gone, my world ended. The police kept me at bay; they would not permit me to go near her. That searing pain that every bereaved parent knows set in…it was there to stay for quite some time.
During the next few days the police were constant visitors. We tried to piece together what happened. We were able to determine through phone records that she had not been on her cell phone (that was our rule), speed nor alcohol were an issue, no one was in the car with her to distract her and weather was not an issue and she had her seatbelt on. For reasons unknown, Ashley swerved hitting a median, she overcorrected putting the vehicle into a skid and hit a tree. She did not have the skills necessary to recover the vehicle. These skills are not part of a teen’s repertoire of knowledge, but they should be.
It has been five long, and at the same time short years since I lost my daughter, Ashley in 2003. In a split second on a sunny June afternoon my world as I knew it ended. How do you kiss your child goodbye, telling them to “have a good day”, only to find them gone a few hours later? With her went my heart, and quite frankly a part of my soul, my very being. There is no complete healing of this wound. No skin graft to fill in this deep crater. Years later I am better able to cope on a daily basis, or should I say minute by minute basis… for it truly depends what day and what minute it happens to be.
So, what do I do now? I miss that vibrant, loving sixteen year old who could always make me laugh and always made me proud. If I am honest, I must admit that I learned more from Ashley then she learned from me. Among many things she taught me perseverance and the power of a positive attitude. No one was better at finding silver linings than Ash! I can hear her now rooting me on, telling me to “do her proud”. That is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t want to let her down.
Therefore, I decided to follow her lead. I continue to do positive things in her honor and memory. Each year I present the Ashley Thompson Memorial Scholarship at her high school. It has become quite the coveted award. During the past five years I have taken a hard look at how we teach our youth to drive. Study after study has arrived at the same conclusion. Teens need more time behind the wheel, driver’s education needs to be updated with more practical experience and defensive driving skills need to be taught. Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for our youth. If a disease was claiming young lives at this rate there would be federal funding for research and “walks for a cure”. So what is wrong? I think I may have an answer. There is a common thought among most people….that it is just an outcome of being an irresponsible teenager. That is not the whole story.
Ashley’s initials spell “ART”. I was looking at some doodling she did on a notebook…she was writing her initials over and over. I thought, there is an art to doing anything well….that includes driving. So, I started a program entitled “The ART of Driving”. It not only represents Ashley Renee Thompson but Awareness, Responsibility and Training. I speak to driver education classes and other community groups. Since 2005 I have been the monthly guest speaker at two defensive driving programs in my area. One is sponsored by our local police department, the other is privately operated. Last month after I spoke at the police program an officer/trainer handed me a helmet and said, “let’s go”. He ran me through the track. I was put through the same maneuvers as the teens were. I start the program off at 7:30 in the morning; after I speak the teens spend the rest of the day until 4:00pm being taught various defensive driving skills on a track with an experienced trainer. After going through the “skid pan” and learning “off road” recovery techniques myself, I realized that not only are these skills vital but, they are not easy to master. Getting out of the car and taking off my helmet all I could think of was, “no one should be driving with out these skills”!
I share Ashley’s story, I keep her memory alive with the hope of keeping young drivers alive. Our youth hear about risk taking behavior all the time. They know what not to do. What I show them is that if it can happen to Ashley under the circumstances of that day, imagine what can happen if risk factors are involved. I impress upon them to accept that fact that they are young and inexperienced… short and simple. Therefore, accept the fact that they require more experience and training. I tell parents that this is not a trust issue, it’s a skill issue. I encourage a dialogue between teens and parents and I challenge parents not to fall prey to the convenience trap. It’s convenient to let them run errands, chauffer siblings and get themselves to events…but it’s not the best practice. After I speak each teen receives a white wrist band imprinted with “Awareness Responsibility Training”. I tell them to keep them on and let them be a constant reminder of what it takes to be a safe driver and to think of Ashley when they get behind the wheel of a car.
I also impress upon them that it is not only their life that is at stake here. Everyone who knows and loves them will be forever changed if they are no longer with us. When they see pictures of Ashley with her only brother, Brian, they hopefully feel his loneliness.
So, I keep my goal in sight, to “do her proud”. I can’t wait some day to hear her say, “Way to go, Mom!"