Family hopes mom’s death in crash will serve as lesson

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One year after a mother of five was killed in a reckless driving crash, her parents hope their pain will make others think twice before using a cellphone while driving.

Jennifer Barnett died March 20, 2019, after another driver crossed the centerline on Algoma Avenue north of Rockford and hit her car.

Her twin boys, then 3, were in the back seat. Nathan and Mason suffered broken bones but ultimately recovered. Their grandparents, Barnett’s mom and dad, are now raising them.

“I start thinking (about it) and I gotta stop,” Barnett’s dad Jeff Tolar told News 8. “There’ll be times I’m driving into work and I don’t know if it’s a song on the radio or a song pops into my head and all of a sudden, I got tears going. It’s nothing a parent needs to go through.”

The other driver Michael Bennett is serving a year in jail after pleading no contest to reckless driving causing death. He was sentenced in December. Tolar posted to Facebook after the sentencing, saying it didn’t amount to justice.

“I didn’t feel justice was made that day,” Tolar told News 8 this week. “I don’t think there’s any true relief from grieving… I, to be honest, still don’t know how to get past it. I think we just live through it.”

Seeing drivers on their phones always bothered Tolar, but now watching people clearly distracted is infuriating.

“I do scream. Nobody hears me, windows are up. It’s like, ‘What are you, crazy? Get off your phone!’ And I probably go for about 30 seconds of screaming and then I continue on my way, but the thought is still there,” Tolar said.


According to Michigan State Police statistics, 817 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in 2017. Of those, 23 were determined to be cellphone- or electronic device-related. 

Other categories MSP tracks include distractions from outside or inside the vehicle or a passenger. In 2017, 741 of the fatal crashes were categorized as unknown distractions.

In 2018, 28 deaths out of 796 fatal distracted driving crashes were cellphone- or electronic device-related, according to MSP statistics. 

“Overconfidence can be a major factor in some of these crashes,” Special Lt. David Cope told News 8. “Just like some people say, ‘I never lose control on the ice or snow. I’m good to go faster.’ Anytime you’re diverting your attention from the task at hand, in this case driving, the potential for these crashes with injury is there.”

Tolar hopes eventually there’s more intervention to combat distracted driving.

“I just wish automobile makers could come up with a device to where your phone shuts off, whether you want it to or not, when you get in the car and start that engine. Your phone no longer works because, in my opinion, you don’t need your phone unless there’s an emergency and if there’s an emergency, you’re not driving,” Tolar said.

Perhaps that technology will be developed some day, maybe even by the time twins Nathan and Mason are behind the wheel.

Jennifer Barnett’s sons, Mason and Nathan. (Undated courtesy)

For now, the Tolars are focused on raising them without their mom.

“They understand mom’s not coming back,” their grandpa-turned-guardian said. “It’s not a sad thing for them, which is in my opinion a blessing. It’s an understanding that, OK, Mom’s not here. They were there, they seen what happened. They relived it several times in their dreams.”

As Tolar and his wife Brenda prepare the boys for kindergarten next year, he hopes people will learn from the unfathomable trauma his family has experienced.

“Talk to your kids about phones, don’t use phones yourself,” he said. “Love your kids. Every day could be the last.”

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