Originally created 11/27/05

Son's death spurs birth of 'Drive Safer Sunday'



ATLANTA - The holiday traffic that will clog the nation's highways today is more than just an annual inconvenience for Steve Owings.

It's a heartbreaking reminder of the day three years ago when his son Cullum was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer during his drive back to school in Virginia.

"We'll wake up to it every day for the rest of our lives," said Mr. Owings, who has channeled his grief into Road Safe America, his Atlanta-based nonprofit group dedicated to promoting driver safety. "We want to save others from that."

Road Safe America recently succeeded in getting the U.S. Senate to declare today Drive Safer Sunday. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has made the same declaration for Mr. Owings' home state.

Experts say the holidays, when millions of people cram into cars for long drives to visit family, are one of the most dangerous times of the year on the nation's roads.

The AAA automotive club predicts 31 million people will be driving 50 miles or more during Thanksgiving week, and the National Safety Council estimates 610 people might die and 33,000 be seriously injured in traffic crashes during the holiday weekend.

"Thanksgiving's the most intense travel period of the year, when you look at the sheer numbers of people taking to the skies and highways in a short period of time," AAA spokesman Justin McNaull said. "It makes for crowded, and sometimes treacherous, roads."

It was Dec. 1, 2002, when Cullum Owings and his younger brother, Pierce - both students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. - left their parents' home in Atlanta after visiting during their Thanksgiving break.

That morning, the Owings family had attended church and eaten breakfast together, even discussing safe driving during the meal.

That night, on a Virginia interstate, Cullum, a 22-year-old senior business major who planned to join the Peace Corps, had stopped in traffic when a speeding tractor-trailer came up behind him. He attempted to swerve his car into the median, but the truck barreled into the driver's side of the vehicle, pinning Cullum's car against a stone embankment. He died before rescue workers could get him out.

Pierce suffered only cuts and bruises.

"Cullum's last move probably saved his little brother's life," Mr. Owings said. "He did the only thing he could do."

Mr. Owings said the truck driver was charged with reckless driving and spent a month in jail.

Mr. Owings, a financial adviser, is now doing all he can to prevent similar tragedies.

Georgia's two U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, led this month's Senate Drive Safer Sunday resolution. It calls on schools, clergy and law enforcement throughout the country to do more to encourage safe driving.

Last year, more than 42,000 people were killed and nearly 2.8 million injured in roughly 6.2 million traffic crashes on U.S. roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Mr. Owings' group has formed a coalition that is petitioning the federal government for new rules regulating the speed of tractor-trailers. Mr. Owings would like to see the government require the activation of speed regulators, or governors, that already come equipped on new big rigs. He'd like them to limit the speed of tractor-trailers to 65 mph.