Click It or Ticket enforcement is designed to prevent fatalities and injuries

Contact: Kendall Wingrove, 517-284-3147

East Lansing Couple Tells How Seat Belts Saved Their Lives

May 21, 2018

Steve and Sallie Whelan are alive because they remembered to buckle up.

 The couple is sharing their story today at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing as law enforcement officials launch a Click It or Ticket mobilization in Michigan from May 21 through June 3.

October 18, 2015 was a beautiful autumn day.  The East Lansing residents were headed to a concert in Grand Rapids to relax at the end of a busy weekend.  Steve was driving westbound on I-96 in Clinton County when a motorist going 92 miles per hour in the eastbound lanes suddenly lost control of her vehicle, crossed the median and launched airborne into the Whelan’s 2014 Chevy Impala. 

Steve, a detective with the East Lansing Police Department, saw the car heading toward him.

“I remember thinking there’s no way we are going to survive this,” he said.

Upon impact, the dashboard of the Whelan’s Impala collapsed onto them.  Sallie suffered heart and lung contusions, broken ribs, broken vertebrae, a fractured wrist, a broken ankle and detached toes on her left foot.

“Another 18 inches closer and I would have been crushed to death,” Sallie said.

Both of Steve’s feet were broken in the crash.  One foot was wedged under the brake pedal with his heel detached and shattered in 15 pieces.  His glasses were destroyed when the air bags activated. Steve and Sallie suffered traumatic brain injuries but had periods of consciousness after the crash.

Because her lungs had been damaged, Sallie found it difficult to talk as Steve repeatedly asked her questions.  Mustering all her strength she whispered, “Steve, it hurts” to her worried husband.

 “That was the best thing I could ever hear,” he said.  “She was still alive and knew who I was.”

Law enforcement officials and emergency responders quickly arrived at the scene near the Wright Road exit and used the Jaws of Life to extract the Whelans.  The other driver was unbelted and died after being ejected from her car during the crash.

The next several months were a whirlwind of surgeries and rehabilitation for both Whelans at Sparrow Hospital.  Their adult children – Tim, Sam, and Grace – all served as caregivers. Even though doctors told Steve it was improbable that he would work again, the detective was back on the force by May 2016. 

 In the years since the crash, the Whelans have had the opportunity to watch Grace graduate from Saginaw Valley State University.  Their oldest son, Tim, started a new job.  Their youngest son Sam married his fiancé Brittany and they have a daughter Kate. 

If they hadn’t worn their seat belts, the Whelans would have missed all these landmark events.

 “I can’t imagine us staying in the car without the seat belts,” said Steve. “We would have gone through the windshield and died.”

To recognize the Whelans for their life-saving decision, the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning (OHSP) and AAA Michigan are presenting the couple with the Saved by the Belt Award. 

“Because the Whelans made a wise choice, they are still here to mark important family milestones as well as enjoy the everyday pleasures of life,” said Michael L. Prince, director of the OHSP.  “Unfortunately by the end of this Memorial Day holiday observance, some Michigan families will be planning funerals because loved ones died in a car crash.  So many tragedies could be prevented if everyone just wore their seat belts.”

No one agrees more than Detective Whelan, who has handled dozens of fatal crash investigations during his career.  He urged everyone to buckle up this holiday season and throughout the year.

“We always wear our seat belts.  We encourage everyone to do the same,” he said. “I’m so grateful that I had my seat belt on the day of the crash.”

The Saved by the Belt program is a joint effort between the OHSP and AAA Michigan which encourages law enforcement agencies to recognize safe motorists and help increase public awareness about the life-saving value of seat belt use.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10,428 unbuckled passenger vehicle occupants were killed in crashes in the United States in 2016 – 203 in Michigan. The NHTSA estimates that seat belts saved the lives of 14,668 vehicle occupants age 5 and older nationwide in 2016.  

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