Train victim was on her cell phone

Witnesses say she was using her cell when collision killed her and her son.

Staff WriterDecember 31, 2009 

Erin Brett Lindsay-Calkins was talking on her mobile phone when she crashed through an Orange County rail crossing gate into the path of a train that struck her car, killing her and her 5-year-old son, the state Highway Patrol reported Wednesday.

Michael Lindsay-Calkins was searching for his wife's phone at dusk Wednesday near the Dec. 22 crash site on Mount Willing Road in Efland.

"Nobody has come forward to say she was talking to them, so I don't know if she was on the cell phone," said Lindsay-Calkins, 24, of Efland. "I checked her car and didn't find the cell phone, and right now I'm looking for it at the site."

Experts say that drivers are dangerously distracted when they talk or send text messages on a cell phone. One study compared phone use to alcohol impairment and found that talking on the phone makes drivers eight times more likely to crash.

Witnesses said Erin Lindsay-Calkins, 26, was using her phone when she approached the rail crossing from the north, the Highway Patrol reported.

Sgt. Jeff Gordon, a Highway Patrol spokesman, said the warning lights and bells performed correctly, alerting drivers to the approaching train, and the crossing gate also functioned properly.

Lindsay-Calkins drove her Toyota Scion under the crossing gate arm as it descended, breaking the gate. Then her car stopped on the tracks, the Highway Patrol reported.

The eastbound Amtrak Carolinian had slowed from 62 to 55 mph before it struck the car. The impact killed Lindsay-Calkins and her son, Nicholas, who was thrown from the car.

Bystanders pulled the driver's 4-month-old daughter, Aven, out of a car seat that was wrapped in the twisted metal of the car.

"It was almost as if she had a guardian," said Bess Bean, 46, of Efland, who arrived seconds after the crash. "Her seat couldn't even be removed from the car. I held the child until EMS got there."

It was the second deadly crash this month at a Triangle rail crossing. Two Durham boys died and their mother was hurt Dec. 9 when the Amtrak Carolinian struck their SUV, hemmed in by other cars and trapped between crossing gates, on the Ellis Road crossing in East Durham.

Both crashes are being investigated by the Federal Railroad Administration and state transportation officials.

"Even if there are warning devices at the crossing site, I suggest people stop and look both ways down the track before crossing over," Gordon said.

'A tragic mistake'

Bean said several friends at the scene told her they had seen Lindsay-Calkins talking on her phone before the crash.

"She was human and she made a tragic mistake," Bean said Wednesday.

"I have said many a prayer for the person - whoever it was - that she was talking to. The thing people really need to take away from this accident is to get off the cell phone when you drive," Bean said.

Recent studies have focused on cell phone use as a significant highway safety problem. One survey by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center found that nearly 60 percent of licensed adult drivers in North Carolina had used their phones while driving.

The General Assembly has outlawed cell phone use for school bus drivers and for all drivers under age 18. A state law that took effect Dec. 1 bans all drivers from using cell phones to send or receive e-mail and text messages. Several legislators have called in recent years for a ban on all cell phone use while driving.

Michael Lindsay-Calkins said he would check phone records to find out what happened.

"The only thing I can think of was that she was calling her voice mail or something," he said.

He said he and his family were devastated by the loss of his wife and son. But Aven has recovered.

"She's doing really good," Michael Lindsay-Calkins said. "She's out of the hospital, and she's normal again."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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