* This article was originally published by Tim Harlow of the Star Tribune
A western Wisconsin woman is imploring drivers to buckle up after she had a near-death experience while driving to work last spring.
Angie Kupczak,45, of Somerset was involved in a fiery head-on crash while driving on Hwy. 97 near Forest Lake. Afterward, doctors and law enforcement told her she was lucky to have survived.
Kupczak believes she knows why she lived.
“I am here today because a seat belt saved my life,” she said Thursday during a news conference at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) headquarters to announce a weeklong statewide Click-It or Ticket campaign. It begins Sunday.
An “angel on the road” also played a role, Kupczak said. That angel was Will St. Germaine, who saw the wreck happen, stopped and pulled Kupczak to safety in the nick of time.
The events unfolded on the morning of March 31 as Kupczak was heading to work. An oncoming driver traveling at highway speed lost control on icy roads and slammed into Kupczak’s vehicle. Germaine ran over, bear-hugged Kupczak and lifted her out just before fire consumed her car.
“The damage was wild,” St. Germaine said. “I knew we had to get her out.”
In the months that followed, Kupczak had eight surgeries to repair her crushed heel, a compound fracture to her right leg, abdominal muscles and 2-inch deep lacerations. With the help of crutches, she is able to walk, but she still attends physical therapy sessions twice a week.
“Everything is fixable,” Kupczak said. “I am a good driver, but I can’t always control what happens to me. I tell my kids to always be careful because you just don’t know.”
What Kupczak does know is the decision to wear her seat belt could mean the difference between life and death.
“People say wearing a seat belt is uncomfortable,” she said. “Going to a funeral is uncomfortable.”
Last year, 110 motorists who chose not to buckle up died in motor vehicle crashes in Minnesota, the most since 2014, according to DPS. So far, 53 unbelted motorists have died in crashes this year, the agency said.
Minnesota has a high compliance rate — 93.4% of drivers buckle up — yet about 30% of all motorists killed in crashes aren’t belted, DPS said.
Minnesota law requires all vehicle occupants to wear seat belts or be properly restrained in an approved child seat. Motorists stopped for not wearing a seat belt face a fine of more than $100 by the time court costs are tacked on. The goal of next week’s campaign is to drive that point home.
“Our goal is traffic safety,” said Lt. Gordon Shank with the State Patrol, noting last year was a particularly deadly one on state roads. Overall, traffic deaths are down slightly compared with this time last year, but seat belt noncompliance remains a problem, he said.
“We are hoping others make good decisions and we can end the year on a good note,” Shank said. “We don’t want to knock on a door and to say somebody is not coming home.”
St. Germaine had talked with Kupczak a few times over Facebook since the crash, but he met her in person for the first time Thursday.
“I am happy Angie is here and walking and doing better all the time,” said St. Germaine, who noted that he wears his seat belt. “They work, and Angie is living proof.”