The day Kathryn Field's son Josh flipped his car after reaching to answer a cellphone in his pocket, his Aylmer, Ont., classmates were voting to choose their valedictorian.
"We found out a week after he'd passed that they'd chosen him – we had no idea he was so popular," says his mom, Kathryn Field. "I made his valedictorian speech because he couldn't."
Josh, who was 17 when he died in June 2009, was one of more than 2,200 people who died in car crashes that year. The National Day of Remembrance for Road Crash Victims honours them on Nov. 19, and the thousands who died or were injured before and since.
"We never use the word accident because we believe these crashes can be prevented if people make safe and responsible choices," says Angeliki Souranis, president of MADD Canada, one of the day's organizers.
On average, one person dies every five hours in a car crash on Canadian roads. In 2012, 2,077 people died in crashes and more than 165,000 were injured. Distraction and driver impairment are each a factor in nearly a third of fatal crashes, says the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF).
"In terms of drugs, there hasn't been a whole lot of awareness that it's just as dangerous as alcohol," says Souranis, whose son Craig, 20, was killed in 2008 while in a car being driven by an impaired friend. "We still don't have the laws in place to address and enforce impairment by drugs – the technology is out there, there are oral swabs, for example."
Other factors in crashes include speeding, aggressive driving, fatigue and failure to wear a seat belt, It's difficult to say which factor is the most deadly as many crashes are caused by a combination of factors, TIRF says.
The number of deaths and injuries have been decreasing, generally, most years. In 1994, there were 3,230 fatalities. In 2004 there were 2,731.
"It's important to remind people that there are still people being injured and killed on a daily basis – we need to honour them and prevent more deaths," Souranis says.
Josh was a "cheeky, funny" kid who didn't own a cellphone. His girlfriend, who was with him, says he realized he was drifting, over-corrected and the car hit the median. Josh died of head injuries. He donated organs to seven people.
Talking on a cellphone wasn't banned in Ontario at the time, Field says.
"It was my cellphone, I'd given it to him to use in emergencies – but reaching for a phone while driving didn't sound like Josh at all," says Field, who, along with her husband Nigel and their daughter Meg, Josh's younger sister, now talk in schools about distracted driving. "We'd come from the U.K. in 2006 and there'd been a there law banning cellphone use since 2002, so we were all used to not using a cellphone in the car. It just shows that it can happen to anybody."
Ned Levitt's daughter, Stacey, 18, was tired and wearing headphones when she was struck and killed by a car while crossing the road in her Toronto neighbourhood in 1995.
"Our world was completely destroyed – it turned out the driver had no legal responsibility," says Levitt, who's on the board of the injury-prevention charity Parachute Canada. "I was suicidal for a long time."
Levitt had a realization that helped him move forward and to find meaning in his daughter's death.
"I realized that Stacey didn't die from an accident, she died from a preventable injury," Levitt says. "I believe she was distracted and she was fatigued – I wish I'd told her, 'For Christ's sake: turn down the volume when you step off the curb.'"
On in seven fatalities on Canadian roads is a pedestrian – 42 per cent of pedestrian deaths happen at intersections, reports the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals.
Levitt hopes that events like the day of remembrance, along with education campaigns will get people to think about risks before they get in a car – or step onto a road.
"You can't eliminate risk – you can't stay in the house or wrap yourself in bubble wrap," he says. "But maybe if more people are aware, they'll think twice before they do something dangerous – nobody ever thinks it will happen to them until it does."
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