Lynn Jennifer Groesbeck, 25, of Springville, Utah, was killed at around 10:30 PM on Friday, March 6th, 2014 in the Spanish Fork River in Spanish Fork, Utah, when she drove her 2007-2012 red Dodge Caliber into a cement barrier on a bridge and plunged into the river by the Arrowhead Trail Road and Main Street junction, close to the Provo area. The only survivor was her 18-month old daughter, Lily, who was rescued in critical condition but released from the hospital several days later. Lynn is survived by her fiance and Lily’s father, 34-year-old Deven Trafny, who was not in the vehicle at the time of the collision. Three police officers and four fighters who participated in the rescue were treated for hypothermia and released. A support page for the family is available here.
Per police and witness reports, a fisherman in the river spotted the red Dodge Caliber on Saturday at around 12:24 PM. It was floating upside down in the water. He called the non-emergency line first to report the vehicle and then notified police in a second call when discovering a woman’s hand in the vehicle.
Police, upon reaching the scene with firefighters, discovered Lily upside down and strapped into her car seat inches above the rushing water.Her mother was deceased in the driver’s seat.
Rescuers state they heard an adult female voice calling for help (stating “Help me…we’re in here.”), but cannot identify where it came from, as Lynn is believed to have died hours earlier during the collision.
Lynn had been in the nearby town of Salem on Friday visiting her parents that evening and had apparently collided with a concrete barrier on the southern end of the bridge while driving home to Springville with her daughter. It is currently not known why she contacted the barrier or why the vehicle veered off the roadway.
She left the town of Salem between approximately 10 and 10:30 PM, and the family was not aware that she did not arrive. A neighbor close to the bridge reported having heard a loud noise around the time of the collision (10:30 PM). The resident explored the area but did not see the vehicle. Lt. Cory Slaymaker from the Spanish Fork Police Department stated that it would have been impossible to see the car from the roadway due to its location.
Rescuers turned the vehicle over, as it had been upside down, in order to remove Lily from her car seat. According to first responders, her eyes were fluttering, but she was unconscious and otherwise unmoving. Lily was recovered from the vehicle through a human assembly line to get her back to shore, where first responders began performing CPR. She was transported to Mountain View Hospital by ambulance before being flown to Primary Children’s Hospital, where she was in critical condition. She had not eaten or drank in 14 hours. She was released from the hospital some days later.
Police later reported that a small bag of marijuana, a bottle of Tramadol (a narcotic-like chronic pain reliever), and an unused and unopened syringe were found in Groesbeck’s purse. However, it is unknown if these factored in the collision. There were no signs of mechanical failure in the vehicle and there were no skid marks on the road.
Investigators believe she might have clipped the concrete barrier before leaving the roadway. Drowsiness and distraction are currently being investigated as possible contributors to the crash.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written about the orphan seat, but unfortunately, the fact that this tragedy has been reported in so many news circles does make it an opportunity for advocacy about the continued importance of properly restraining our children, driving safely, and driving safe vehicles.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the collision itself and circumstances leading up to it. We know Lynn was driving home at night from visiting her parents, and it’s likely she was familiar with the area. Night driving carries risks of low-visibility, as well the more pressing risk of fatigue. With the information we have, my greatest suspicions regarding the cause of the collision with the concrete barrier are that she either began to fall asleep or that she was momentarily distracted by something. If I had to choose one of the two, I’d guess she fell asleep, especially given the lack of skid marks leading up to the collision, suggesting she did not perform any emergency braking maneuvers immediately before the crash. Whatever the initial cause of impaired driving, upon striking the barrier, she lost control of the vehicle and left the roadway, which is one of the greatest risk factors for single vehicle collision fatalities, and unfortunately drove into the river to the right of the bridge.
A risk factor present at this point that also deserves mention involves the tapered construction of the bridge barrier. While the barrier was ostensibly created to reduce the likelihoods of vehicles entering the water, the ramp-style design could easily have contributed toward launching the vehicle off the side of the road and down the hill into the river once the wheels of the vehicle made contact with the barrier. This design was not a safe one and may have played a significant role in her leaving the roadway.
We know that she was driving a Dodge Caliber, but I don’t know precisely which year. Why does the year matter? Because Electronic Stability Control, a feature shown to reduce the risks of fatal single vehicle collisions by up to 50%, was an optional feature in every year of the Caliber’s existence except for 2012, the final model year. ESC might have prevented her from completely leaving the road, or at least might have enabled her to maintain enough control to slow her descent into the river to a degree that would have enabled her to survive the collision, presuming she died of injuries due to the collision itself. However, a safety feature even more basic than ESC is ABS, or anti-lock brakes. Dodge didn’t find those important enough to make a standard feature on the Caliber either, at least until 2011. This means she might have had even less control of the vehicle than drivers of vehicles made more than a decade earlier. These are the kinds of elements that matter when choosing a safe car.
Whatever the reason, she left the road and did so in a severe enough fashion to rollover the vehicle by the time she entered the river. To Dodge’s credit, the Caliber came with side-impact airbags in every year of manufacture (and activated side airbags are visible in the images above), but it did not come with rollover-sensing airbags, which suggests the vehicle may have become airborne at some point or otherwise experienced a severe side impact while rolling into its final upturned position. Rollover-sensing airbags would have tripped the moment the vehicle started rolling over, while regular side impact airbags would not have activated until the vehicle experienced a significant side force. In other words, it’s possible that Lynn might have suffered a concussion and lost consciousness or died during the rollover itself before the vehicle came to rest in the river. Either would have rendered her incapable of rescuing herself or her daughter.
If she did not die from a side impact injury, she might alternatively have died from injuries related to the roof caving in by the A-panel, which is particularly visible in the 3rd picture of the Caliber above. The Caliber has an “acceptable” IIHS roof score, which states the roof was capable of supporting around 3.5x the vehicle’s weight before caving in by 5 inches when tested. A “good” score would have supported 4x the vehicle’s weight, and might have made the difference between the observed level of roof crush and providing a survivable amount of space in the front area of the occupant cabin.
An examination of the vehicle in the pictures above also indicates the impact that led to the rollover occurred on the passenger side, due to the extensive body damage on the right side of the vehicle and the relatively undamaged body panels on the left side of the vehicle. The lack of left-side damage also suggests the vehicle only rolled over once. However, the damage was enough to significantly crush the roofline in the front left and right sides of the vehicle.
At any rate, the roof in the rear portion of the Caliber held enough to maintain the seats of the upside-down vehicle (and Lily in her car seat) above the water line.
This brings up another point: despite the observations of the fisherman, the vehicle could not have been floating, as nearly no vehicles float for a significant amount of time when immersed in water. In an immersion, you have between a few seconds and a few minutes, on average, to exit a vehicle. You don’t have 14 hours. The vehicle was almost certainly resting against a shallow part of the riverbed that happened to be shallow enough to allow part of the vehicle to maintain above the water line.
Moving on, why did Lynn die? I have no idea. But the circumstances of the collision suggest she either died or became unconscious upon impact or died shortly after due to shock, hypothermia, or drowning. None of the reports I’ve come across indicate whether or not she was wearing a seat belt, so there’s little point in speculating further here until more information is available.
What about the drugs? Well, Lynn was apparently in a serious accident years back that could easily have left her with chronic pain that she might have been managing with Tramadol (and perhaps the marijuana). I believe private marijuana use is illegal in Utah, but again, there’s no proof that she was actually under its influence at the time. She was also in a medical assistant program, which could potentially explain the unopened syringe. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait for the toxicology reports. But given the care with which she restrained her child, I would not expect her to have been under the influence of any drugs at the time of the collision.
Regarding Lily, we can get a clearer picture of why she survived by analyzing the vehicle and the cicumstances of the collision. Images of the vehicle indicate her car seat was in the center rear seat, which is the safest position for a car seat in a collision, as it’s impossible for that position to receive a direct hit and it’s the furthest from a side impact, on average.
Being properly restrained in a car seat, including being restrained with the proper levels of harness tightness and a secure seat installation meant that she didn’t succumb to the severe forces of the impact or rollover, fly out of her seat or out of the vehicle entirely during the collision, and that she was able to remain in her seat, which, in conjunction with the relatively strong roof of the vehicle and fortunate position on the shallow riverbed, meant she was kept above the water and able to breathe and not succumb to hypothermia, even though she eventually lost consciousness.
How do we explain the female voice the first responders swear they heard that encouraged them to find Lily?
I’ll leave that up to you, as it’s beyond my expertise.
In conclusion, this is a tragic story that speaks to the need to drive safely, to choose safe vehicles, and to choose and use car seats for your youngest travelers. There is no doubt that Lily would not be alive had her mother not taken the steps she did to ensure she was safe and sound before driving away from her parents. I have no idea which car seat she used, and frankly, it doesn’t matter that much. It could have been a high-end seat like a Clek Fllo or a basic seat like a Graco Size4Me 65; both would have done an excellent job keeping her safe. And that’s the ultimate goal.
Rest in peace, Lynn. And thank you for taking care of your daughter as best as you could before you set off that night.
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