By Valerie Schremp
She did it all the time.
Three years ago, on a clear September afternoon, 11-year-old Jamie Pannebecker, tired after a long day in sixth grade, decided to take a nap on the way home.
She reclined the front passenger seat and quickly fell asleep. Jamie's older brother was driving and at some point on Shackleford Road near Florissant, he fell asleep. The car ran off the road and slammed into a utility pole.
Jamie's body lurched forward into the shoulder harness and then back down toward the reclined seat. The seat snapped forward and hit her on the back of the head. Jamie died of severe brain trauma the next day.
If Jamie's seat had been upright, she would have survived, say her parents, Kevin and Vicki Pannebecker, who live just north of Florissant. They weren't aware of the danger of riding in a reclined seat, and they know now that many others aren't either, they say.
"We've found stories of death and dismemberment all around the country," Kevin Pannebecker said.
The Pannebeckers have started the SnowAngel Foundation, dedicated to raising money for other charitable causes while also warning people of the risk of riding in a reclined seat. The foundation is hosting a benefit involving walking, running and bike riding on Oct. 18 on the Katy Trail in St. Charles.
The event is the group's first big fund-raiser, and the Pannebeckers hope it is the start of a huge safety push. They want people to follow its slogan: "Buckle tight and sit upright."
Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said car owner manuals now warn of the risk. Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, said he encourages consumers to read the owner's manual for all safety warnings. Consumers want reclined seats, he said, citing naps at rest stops or relaxing at tailgating parties as examples of proper use.
The Traffic Safety Administration does not keep statistics about what happens in accidents when passengers are in reclined seats, Neblett said.
Missouri also does not track such figures, said Capt. Chris Riggs, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol. Riggs, who says accidents involving reclined seats appear to be rare, says he has napped on trips in a reclined seat.
But another concern looms: Troopers have noticed more young people driving while leaning back in a partially reclined seat. Riggs said this also obstructs vision.
The Pannebeckers say they also notice the trend, so they want to speak at high schools. They also want to talk to car manufacturers to persuade them to install as a standard feature an existing device that prevents the seat from reclining while the car is in gear.
The SnowAngel Foundation got its name from Jamie's middle name, Snow. Her mother also has the middle name. It comes from a storybook character.
Jamie loved her middle name, her parents say. She said it made her special and different. But even without the name, Jamie made her mark. She was the "noise" of the house, and as long as Jamie was there, there was never a lull in dinner conversation, they say.
She made up elaborate, imaginary stories with her scores of Beanie Baby stuffed animals, and read for hours perched in a maple tree in the front yard. If an unsuspecting person walked by below, she'd call out and make them jump.
"She called herself Joyful Jamie," her mother says. "Because she was such a good kid, that makes things all the harder."
The money the foundation raises will go to places Jamie would support, like animal protection groups, YMCA Camp Lakewood in Potosi, Mo., and Kennard Classical Junior Academy in St. Louis. Jamie attended school there before enrolling in sixth grade at Whitfield School in west St. Louis County.
"I really want to carry on Jamie's kindness, through the donations and kindness of other people," her mother said.