By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Kayle Denny spoke from a wheelchair Tuesday about a terrible car crash that changed her life.
During a "Just Drive" conference on highway safety, Denny shared the story of how she and two classmates ditched school on Sept. 10, 2007, to take a road trip. Denny, then a high school senior, drove the car that rainy day. Her car hydroplaned and rolled. None of the teens in that car was wearing a seat belt.
Denny's spinal cord was damaged, and doctors told her she would never walk again.
"That paled in comparison to the moment when Mom told me my friend Alex had died," Denny said tearfully at Wednesday's conference, sponsored by the North East Coalition for Roadway Safety at the Quality Inn and Suites in Hannibal.
"I was driving that day, and someone died. That will never be OK."
Denny lives in the Jefferson City area and speaks at highway safety events, hoping to spare others the pain she, her friends and family have suffered.
Leanna DePue, director of highway safety for the Missouri Department of Transportation, unveiled Missouri's Blueprint to Save More Lives at the conference. State statistics show that traffic fatalities are declining, but DePue said too few people are wearing safety belts.
"Missouri's seat belt use is 79 percent. The national rate is 86 percent," DePue said.
Teen use is even lower at 66 percent, according to a 2012 survey. Teen traffic death rates also are higher than for other age groups, and 80 percent of teens killed in traffic crashes were not wearing a seat belt.
Road construction and safety devices have helped reduce traffic fatalities. Rumble stripes have been installed along many highways to alert drivers when they stray from driving lanes. Median cable guards have been installed along the state's busiest and most dangerous highways. Those changes started in 2005, and annual highway fatalities have since fallen -- potentially saving 2,009 people.
Crystal Lain of Hannibal shared her family's experiences when her sister, Dannielle, died after a car crash on March 8, 2008.
"Danni and three friends had gone to Quincy shopping," and the car she was riding in flipped seven times, Lain said.
None of the girls in the care had worn a seat belt. Danni was thrown from the vehicle and died soon after Lain and her parents reached Blessing Hospital.
Lain said the stress of her sister's death cause her to suffer seizures, and she temporarily lost her own driver's license.
In recent years, Lain and her mother opened a women's clothing store in downtown Hannibal. The store is named Danni Nicole's after the sister and daughter they lost.
Steve Dickson, a MoDOT surveyor, talked about a head-on collision that bruised his heart in 2007. The difference for him and a co-worker in the truck was seat belt use.
"I've always worn my seat belt. That's the only thing that saved us that day," Dickson said.
High school students from several area schools were honored at the conference for increasing seat belt use and pledging not to text and drive.
But Denny's message was what was especially relevant to the teens.
"I went from 17 to 70 in just a couple of seconds," she said.
She told how she must find ways to adjust to her new life and adapt.
"I love to dream, because everything's fine in them," she said. "I can walk, and I can dance. It's like I wake up to a reverse nightmare."