Grieving parents warn against texting and driving

11/13/12 Janelle Irwin
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Florida doesn’t have a law against using a mobile phone while driving, but a new national effort is trying to change that. The first ever Distracted Driver Summit this morning at the Tampa Convention Center put a painful and tragic face on the problem. Three parents shared their stories about the day they lost their daughters to drivers who were either texting or talking on the phone.

“I called a friend who was out of town – it was her birthday – and I realized five miles up the road I had missed my turn. Thank God I only missed my turn. I didn’t miss a stop sign or a child crossing the street. I am lucky that in my bad behavior, I didn’t kill anyone or myself.”

The next weekend Elissa Schee’s 13-year-old daughter was killed. She was on a school bus on her way home in September of 2008 when the bus pulled off to the side of the road and turned its hazard lights on. The driver of the semi that hit the big yellow bus never even saw it. All of the students got out of the bus except for Margay.

“Margay is never coming back. The man that killed her received a three year prison sentence. I received a life sentence and I’m not here talking to you all because she’s coming back. I’m here so that you don’t end up in a prison uniform like I am for the rest of your lives.”

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, more than 3,000 people nationwide were killed in 2010 in car accidents where the driver admitted being distracted. Most of those fatal accidents involved a cell phone. Heather Hurd was one of the victims.

“Because of someone texting while driving, my wish of walking my daughter down the aisle on her wedding day will never happen. I will never dance that special father-daughter dance at her reception. Because of distracted driving my wife will never hold a grandchild born to our daughter. Because of texting while driving, I will never hear my daughter’s special little giggle ever again."

That was Russell Hurd, Heather’s dad. The morning of her death, he and his wife excitedly took off to Disney World where they were set to start planning their daughter’s dream Disney wedding. She never showed up. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is hoping Florida will join 39 other states in passing legislation banning the use of cellular devices while driving. Some Republican legislators argue that it would be too much big government and an attack on personal freedom. But LaHood disagrees.

“No body was wearing a seatbelt. Nobody. People said it’s too uncomfortable, I don’t want to wrinkle my clothes – you heard all the excuses. But as states began to pass laws and we provided incentives, now 86% of us, the first thing we do when we get in a car, 86%, we buckle up. Think of the lives that have been saved.”

Florida not only lacks a statewide ban on distracted driving, they also have a law in place that prohibits localities from passing their own ordinances. LaHood tells people in states like that to get involved.

“I leave it to these people. My message to these folks today was, let’s be partners in this. We’ve identified a serious problem. I don’t live in Florida. I don’t vote in Florida. But a lot of the people in that room do – my encouragement to them was, you talk to your legislator.”

LaHood and other advocates for safe driving also encourage motorists to use their own self-control. Michael Merwarth, chief underwriter for USAA insurance who sponsored the summit, said there’s really no way for insurance companies to directly discourage people from using their phones while behind the wheel.

“We’re really approaching this as a driver safety issue for our 9 million plus members who are out there and who are driving on the same roads and who are exposed to this same situation as every other general member of the public. So we’re on raising awareness around the issue.”

Instead Merwarth hopes people will stash their devices out of reach.

“It’s very challenging for us to pinpoint specifically the direct impact that distracted driving is having on crashes. You cited the statistic, over 3,000 fatalities, over 400,000 injuries – I think by anecdote and intuition all of us expect that it is at least that large today, if not larger given the prevalence of the cell phone usage. All of us carry these devices around. They are extremely useful tools that we have been conditioned to respond to immediately when they chime at us.”

The epidemic, as many affected have called it, doesn’t just claim lives by ending them. More than 400,000 accidents were attributed to distracted driving in 2010. Lawrence Vogul, chief of pediatrics at Shriners Hospital in Chicago and president of the spinal cord injury association said most new spinal cord injuries come from car accidents.

“The estimated lifetime cost of caring for somebody with a spinal cord injury ranges from a half a million to three million dollars depending on the severity of the injury.”

Of the 39 states that have some sort of ban on mobile device use in the car, only ten have complete bans. Several bills were introduced in Florida in 2011, but none were considered. This year, a bill sponsored by Venice Republican Senator Nancy Detert made it through four votes, but was never enacted.

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