SANDY — Elizabeth Nielsen rushed to the side of her only child at Davis Hospital and Medical Center on Nov. 25, 2016, just in time to embrace him, squeeze his hand and tell him she loved him before he slipped away.
"To see him laying there, the life of the party — to see him in that condition was really difficult," Nielsen remembers.
Joshua Nielsen, 15, died from injuries he suffered when the young friend he was riding with turned left in front of an oncoming car, his mother said.
The Nielsens were one of five families on hand Monday inside The Shops at South Town where officials from the Department of Health, Department of Transportation and Utah Highway Patrol spoke to reporters and implored all Utahns to do their part in preventing teen deaths on the state's roads.
"In 25 years, I've investigated a lot of fatal crashes," said Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich. "I can remember every single one that involves a young driver. I can remember the devastation it caused those involved in the crash, the devastation it causes those families and the devastation it causes the communities that these young drivers come from."
Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said 285 teenagers died in crashes in Utah in the last 10 years, including 34 last year.
In a somber tradition now 10 years running, the Department of Health published a "teen memoriam" detailing the experiences of several families who recently lost children in crashes. The project has offered insight into the lives of 120 of those teens killed in the last decade.
Elizabeth Nielsen remembers every unimaginable detail of her last moments with Joshua, from seeing the machines keeping him going being disconnected to being allowed to wash the blood from his face. In those moments, the trajectory of her own life irrevocably changed.
"We don't know what our purpose is anymore," she said, speaking for herself and her husband, Dan Nielsen. "It's a whole new life trying to live (without him). It's almost impossible to do."
Joshua "loved life," his father said, and his passion for theater was flourishing. He had performed in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Northridge High School, and in multiple productions at Clearfield Community Arts Center. Dan Nielsen said his son was a friend to everyone, and loved to joke with and surprise his parents.
"We pretty much lived our lives around him," he said. "Everything was for him."
An exhibit paying homage to teenagers who died in traffic accidents will be on display at The Shops at South Town throughout the holiday season.
"There's nothing that compares to the loss of a child," Braceras said. "This has to change. It can change. But each of us, whether we're teenagers or not, we're responsible to bring about the change that's needed."
According to the Department of Health, drivers ages 16 through 19 are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash per mile driven. Teen drivers make up 9 percent of license holders in the state, but are involved in 21 percent of crashes, Braceras said. He added that teenagers accounted for 44 percent of deaths attributed to not wearing seat belts.
"Almost exclusively, our outward and proactive efforts focus on our young and vulnerable drivers," Rapich said. But he noted that adults in a teenager's life are responsible for setting the example of safe driving "in order ... to take that education and make it hit home."
The teenagers' stories featured in the exhibit — some of them were driving when they died, while others were passengers or pedestrians — were saturated with warnings from grieving parents about how their deaths could have been prevented. Factors that led to their lives being cut short included speeding, lack of a working seat belt in their vehicle, drowsiness, being without a motorcycle helmet, distracted driving and aggressive driving.
The parents of Drex Taylor, 18, believe he fell asleep at the wheel when he was ejected and killed in a Washington County crash on May 22, 2016. His friend was severely injured as well.
"We chose to (share his story) so we could help other teenagers and other drivers," said his mother, Tonya Terry.
Taylor was a two sport athlete, playing both basketball and football at Dixie High School, loved being a mentor to his younger brothers, and had an exciting future ahead, Terry said.
In her written account of her son's death, Terry implored drivers to always wear their seat belt and to know that "if you are tired, it's OK to pull over and rest or wait for someone to come get you and bring you home safely."
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