Did cell phone lead to fatal crash?

A year later, dad who lost his wife and son doubts the official theory.

Staff WriterDecember 24, 2010 

Michael and Erin Lindsay-Calkins with their two children in 2009. Nicholas, 5, left, and Erin died in a crash Dec. 22, 2009. Aven Lindsay, then 4 months old, survived. Her father says she’s doing well at 16 months.

COURTESY OF MICHAEL LINDSAY-CALKINS

  • State and Durham city officials plan by August 2011 to install an $800,000 signal system intended to keep drivers from being trapped on the tracks at a crossing where two children died in a car-train crash last year.

    Deborah Bingham was stopped on the tracks, caught in heavy traffic on Ellis Road, when the crossing gates closed for an approaching Amtrak train on Dec. 9, 2009. The impact killed her sons, Calvin Brandon, 9, and Hasan Bingham, 6.

    Traffic signals will replace stop signs at intersections on both sides of the tracks, at Angier Avenue and Pettigrew Street. When a train approaches from a distance, a green light will give Ellis Road drivers time to clear the tracks before the light turns red and the crossing gates come down.

    If a car is caught inside the closed gates, a vehicle detection system will open a gate to let the driver exit safely, said Paul Worley, rail engineering and safety director for the state Department of Transportation.

Witnesses said Erin Lindsay-Calkins appeared to be holding a cell phone to her ear as she drove in front of a fast Amtrak train in Efland days before last Christmas, but her widower still wonders what made her crash through the rail-crossing gate.

Lindsay-Calkins, 26, and her 5-year-old son, Nicholas, were killed when the Amtrak Carolinian struck their Toyota on Dec. 22, 2009. Her infant daughter, Aven, survived with minor injuries.

The crash happened minutes after they left their home a few miles from the Mount Willing Road crossing.

"I had just given them all a kiss goodbye," Michael Lindsay-Calkins, 25, Erin's husband, said this week.

"Erin was really excited about Christmas. She was painting a picture for her parents and was supposed to finish it that day. It's a half-painted picture."

Lindsay-Calkins searched the crash site a week later, but his wife's phone was never recovered. He said phone records show no activity - she didn't make or receive a call or text message - in the minutes before she died.

"I don't think she was using her phone," he said. "It kind of bothered me that they kept pushing that. Nobody checked her phone records."

A more complete picture may emerge next year when the Federal Railroad Administration completes its investigation.

The crash called attention to a deadly hazard on the nation's roads: drivers distracted by their phones. In January, the National Safety Council released a study linking 28 percent of all road crashes to drivers phoning or texting at the wheel.

Witnesses said Erin Lindsay-Calkins was driving alongside the eastbound train that morning toward Mount Willing Road on Forrest Avenue, which runs beside the tracks. Railroad reports say the crossing gates were down, with bells ringing and red lights flashing to warn drivers of the approaching train.

Paul Worley, rail engineering and safety director for the state Department of Transportation, has reviewed video from a locomotive camera that recorded the final moments before the crash.

"You see the car as you're coming down the track," Worley said. "The car doesn't stop. It makes a right turn and keeps on going. The gate flies up.

"The last thing you see is the driver glancing up. Her right hand appears to be holding something to her ear. I don't know what it would be if it wasn't a phone."

Lindsay-Calkins says he doesn't know, either. He doesn't want to see the video.

"Of course, she may have been holding her phone, or she could have been fixing her hair," he said.

He noted that the crash happened at 10:23 a.m. on the second day of winter, when the morning sun was low in the southeastern sky.

"The sun is right in your face, and you can barely see a thing when you're turning right there at that time. I think it was really bad timing. She made that turn, the sun probably blinded her for a second, and she hit that bar."

Nicholas had been buckled in to his booster seat, but the boy and the seat were thrown from the car.

"I think if Nicholas had been in a different kind of car seat, he might have had a chance," Lindsay-Calkins said. "Booster seats aren't locked into the car, and I don't think they're safe."

Booster seats are designed to make it possible for a small child to wear a standard lap-and-shoulder belt correctly. Studies show they reduce deaths and injuries, but no car seat is guaranteed for every type of crash, said Bill L. Hall, a child car-seat expert who runs a safety information website, buckleupnc.org, for the UNC Center for Highway Safety Research.

Bystanders pulled Aven, the baby, out of a rear-facing infant seat buckled into the car. Her seat was wrapped in twisted metal after her side of the car was struck by a train that had slowed to 55 mph, but her injuries were not serious.

Lindsay-Calkins said he could not resume his work for 10 months after the crash that killed his wife and son. This fall he started a business as a handyman, doing carpentry and painting and other work.

Aven, now 16 months old, is at home with her father in Efland. They're getting ready for another Christmas.

"Aven's doing really well," Lindsay-Calkins said. "She's ahead of her game, talking and walking. She's doing really good."

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

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