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Sunday, May 09, 2021

“It definitely changed my outlook on life”: The lasting impact of crashes on families and victims

UF students and families advocate for traffic safety

<p>A pedestrian jaywalks across West University Avenue on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.</p>

A pedestrian jaywalks across West University Avenue on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

Harsh ceiling lights illuminated a room in a Melbourne rehabilitation center. Bryanne Parks fought through bleary eyes and extreme pain throughout her body. It was 4 a.m., but she had to stay awake to have her blood drawn and receive a shot.

The 20-year-old UF marketing sophomore said she was the only person in the center under the age of 80 and was released early because the miserable atmosphere inhibited her recovery. Rehab was Parks’ third stop after being hit by a driver who ran a red light at the intersection of Diamond Road and Northwest 13th Street while she was on her scooter Feb. 7, 2020. 

She spent about a week and a half at UF Health Shands Hospital and then another week in rehab. 

“I was just so unhappy,” she said. 

Parks suffered a traumatic brain injury, two collapsed lungs, a broken collar bone and rib, a ruptured spleen and a broken frontal sinus. She was in her freshman year of college at the time.

The crash occurred less than a year before the deaths of Maggie Paxton and Sophia Lambert, two UF students killed in pedestrian crashes on West University Avenue. The frequent pedestrian fatalities and injuries around UF campus have incited calls for legislative action from students and faculty. This semester, students at the university created Florida Not One More, a UF student organization advocating for safer roads. 

Parks serves on Florida Not One More’s executive board as a part of the state outreach team, which is responsible for finding the contact information for district representatives and assigning the information to members for call-in days. She said she’s grateful for the opportunity because it allows her to advocate for people like Lambert and Paxton, who no longer can. 

“I wouldn’t change what happened to me because I wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t,” she said. “It definitely changed my outlook on life.”

This year, 24 pedestrian crashes have already occurred in Alachua County — three of which were fatal, according to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles crash dashboard. These incidents uproot the lives of victims, their families and leave lasting impacts on the Gainesville community. 

Parks said she navigated through a season of survivor’s guilt after hearing about Lambert and Paxton’s deaths. 

“Why me? Why am I still alive, but why did they have to lose their lives?” she said. “That’s what drives me to want to make a difference so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

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Parks said she’s lucky that she is still able to walk and function normally throughout the day. She said the incident no longer consumes most of her waking moments the way it did for the first year after the crash

She still feels its impact, though. Focusing on classwork and even finding items in the grocery store are now more strenuous activities because of the damage her brain endured, she said. 

“It was very mentally taxing getting back into school and going from being a straight-A student with not an extreme amount of effort to now I have to really try to remember things,” she said. 

Graylin Skates, Parks’ second cousin and roommate at the time of the crash, had just said goodbye to Parks and was headed out of town for a concert when she noticed someone lying on the ground. 

While stopped at a traffic light, the 20-year-old UF microbiology sophomore couldn’t take her eyes off of the crash. She soon realized it was Parks and her scooter lying in the road. 

“You always think that these things can’t happen to you, and they can’t happen to your loved ones, but it definitely is something we’re not immune from,” Skates said. “You can be doing everything right, and these tragedies can still happen.”

Graylin Skates
[Photo courtesy Paige Davis]

A member of Maggie Paxton’s sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma, Skates said her chapter’s loss was an emotional time for her — especially after her personal experience with Parks and the proximity of Paxton’s and Lambert’s deaths. 

“I think that’s kind of why we resonated and decided to join Florida Not One More,” Skates said. “Because we feel so strongly that nobody else should have to be affected by this and lose loved ones and spend weeks in hospitals kind of having to deal with the aftermath of all these traffic issues.”

A little over a week before Parks was hit on her scooter, Denise Griffiths was hit by a car while crossing East University Avenue. Unlike Parks, she did not live to share her story.

Griffiths, a 21-year-old UF English language and literature senior, was hit by a car while walking onto a crosswalk Jan. 27, 2020. She died almost two days later. The incident occurred at 2500 E University Ave. as Griffiths made her way home from school. 

Griffiths’ grandmother Cynthia Gainey said she doesn’t want anyone else to feel the pain she and her family have endured. 

“It’s been hell,” Gainey said. 

Gainey said her heart goes out to the two young ladies who were killed this year. Something has to be done, she said. She believes every light needs its own camera and that if police were visible on the road, people would slow down. 

“I can’t bring Denise back, but hopefully we can protect somebody else’s babies,” Gainey said. 

In February, the Florida Department of Transportation and UF announced plans to increase pedestrian safety. After installing temporary speed tables, FDOT plans to lower University Avenue’s speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph by Summer 2021 and collaborate with UF to create two new crosswalks on the road. 

The Gainesville Police Department also began the Gator Special Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) in January, which increased the presence of patrol officers and took other measures. 

Gainey and her family honor Griffiths every day of their lives, she said. Following the first anniversary of Griffiths’ death, Gainey told others to allow her granddaughter to live on by being kind and picking up others. They honor her by doing the right thing, she said. 

“Denise wouldn’t want me sitting here crying,” Gainey said. “She’d want me to be rejoicing in her name by doing something constructive that she does.” 

At the time of her death, Griffiths lived with Gainey, she said. Her grandmother thinks about Griffiths all the time, and Gainey’s favorite thing about Griffiths was how intelligent she was from a young age. 

Griffiths was the one who helped Gainey use her phone, made her tea and sat with her when she didn’t feel well. Some days, Gainey forgets and still calls Griffiths’ phone. 

“I think about who [is going to] take care of me when I’m too old to take care of myself, and it was her,” Gainey said. “But she’s gone now.”

Denise Griffiths

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Gainey.

Gainey would not allow her family to mark where Griffiths died, and she has moved since her granddaughter’s death. 

“I cannot stand to go cross that spot where my baby laid in that road,” Gainey said. “I had to move. I couldn’t deal with it.” 

Some students are still in recovery from recent traffic incidents. On March 2, Khoury Kennedy was hit by a car while biking in a roundabout on Depot Avenue. 

The 21-year-old UF telecommunications junior said the collision left her with a broken collarbone, which she had to get surgery for and is still healing from. 

Kennedy said she was only a block away from completing the biking portion of a Dry-Tri, an event where people time themselves either swimming; biking and running or rowing; biking and running certain distances. 

“I’m an active person, and so it’s just frustrating,” she said. “It’s a three-month recovery before I can start picking up things again.” 

The injury has impeded Kennedy’s ability to grow as a telecommunications major, too. As a videographer for RecSports, she said the job requires holding a camera to film, which she currently cannot do.

“That’s what I’m studying, and that’s what I want to do, so it gets rid of all that experience,” she said. 

Instead, Kennedy will focus on video editing, which does not require lifting any objects.

Khoury Kennedy
[Photo courtesy of Catherine Kennedy]

Kennedy is glad people appear to be more cautious, and cycling groups like TriGators and the UF cycling club have urged members to stay safe by giving out free helmets and bike lights. The community services division of UFPD also gives out free bike lights and helmets. 

“I have a lot of friends who are like ‘Hey, whenever I go through that roundabout I look for bikers,’ and I’m like ‘Oh good, just that one roundabout? Maybe look at the other ones, too,’” she joked lightly. 

Kennedy said the three-month recovery process is not long in the grand scheme of her life, and she is grateful to have survived the crash, unlike other students who have not.  

“I’m the luckiest of the unlucky,” she said.

Contact Abigail Hasebroock and Juliana Ferrie at ahasebroock@alligator.org and @jferrie@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @abbeyhasebroock and @juliana_f616.

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Abigail Hasebroock

Abigail is a second-year journalism major covering university general assignment news for The Alligator. When she’s not catching up on school or reporting, she’s spending time outside, reading or reorganizing her Spotify playlists - usually all at the same time. 


Juliana Ferrie

Juliana Ferrie is a second-year UF journalism student. She is excited to be working for The Alligator as the Santa Fe Beat reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading or listening to music.


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