No Seat Belt

Teens Talking To Teens About Driving Dangers

The Unnecessary Death of Michael Appleby

victims_kirsten-fox_re_michael-appleby16-year-old Kirsten Fox (pictured right) has eaten her lunch next to an empty chair in the Notre Dame High School cafeteria every day for the last year-and-a-half. The pretty and popular junior has plenty of friends, but none of them offer to fill the empty seat – the seat her boyfriend, Michael Appleby, once filled.

“Every day at lunch we would eat together. It was me, then Michael, then our friend Adam, all in a row. We still sit that way, even though Michael is gone. If someone who doesn’t know comes up and tries to sit in the chair now, Adam will say, ‘Please don’t sit there. That’s Michael’s seat.’”

It has been more than 18 months since 16-year-old Notre Dame student Michael Appleby was killed in a car accident while driving without his seatbelt fastened. Kirsten says the boy she knew since grade school was a loyal friend with a ready smile for everyone he passed in the halls of Notre Dame.

“He was someone you could talk to and he would listen – really listen – to what you had to say. And he would take up for you. He was very protective of all his friends. You know, I never believed this could happen to someone I knew,” she says, shaking her head. “I never believed that someone I was eating lunch with one day would be gone the next.”

Michael’s mother, Judy Appleby, founded MAKUS (Michael Appleby Keeping Us Safe) just days after her son’s death in an effort to dispel that myth she says kills so many kids.

“I’m living proof that it can happen to you,” Judy says. “My life will never be the same. It just takes a split second of bad judgment and your life is changed forever. Kids need to realize that.”

In addition to her efforts to reintroduce drivers ed in high schools, Judy is making plans to build a MAKUS Driver’s Skills Center in Chattanooga that would include a simulator lab, computer lab, conference room and theatre, all geared toward educating drivers, especially young drivers, about the dangers they face on the road.

“The Driver’s Skills Center, and especially the simulator will give kids a chance to practice the proper responses to dangerous situations that come up when you’re driving, like when you’re in a sharp curve and your wheels leave the ground. They will get some experience behind the wheel before they get on the road and have to face it in real life.”

Some of the $4 million needed to build such a skill center will be raised in the group’s second annual MAKUS Golf Tournament at Windstone on July 10. Last year’s tournament yielded more than $25,000 for the education programs of MAKUS.

“The support I’ve received from the community since Michael’s death has been incredible for each and every event we’ve held for MAKUS. It’s especially heartfelt by every parent since they realize it could happen to them.”

On July 12, the Cumberland Trio will hold a benefit concert at the Chattanooga Theatre Center with all proceeds going to MAKUS. The evening will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a silent auction that will include items such as signed baseballs, a diamond bracelet and furs. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. with refreshments provided by Famous Dave’s.

Judy says that with the support of Chattanoogans and the help of many volunteers, including some of Michael’s friends like Kirsten, MAKUS is making a difference in Chattanooga.

Kirsten says she hopes her work with MAKUS will help educate other teens on their road responsibilities without them having to experience the pain of losing a friend.

“Before this happened, sometimes I wore my seatbelt, sometimes I didn’t. Now, there’s no question about it, it’s on all the time. Now I want to get more kids talking to kids around Hamilton County and increase the awareness every way we can. Maybe it will result in less lives taken.”

The above article, by Christina Siebold, first appeared on the Chattanoogan.com website on June 27, 2003, and we are very grateful to the staff at the Chattanoogan for their permission to reproduce it here, in full.