2012-11-21 / Top News



TAYLOR FISCHER AND JOAN GRIFFITH are young women learning how to drive. They’re scared to drive on the interstate. They’re scared to pass big trucks. They’re scared that every other driver at every other traffic light seems to be texting on his or her cell phone. But to be honest, these Palm Beach Gardens sophomores would have to say, more than texting drivers feeling frightening, they feel familiar.

“You see someone swerving, then you pass them and see they’re texting on their cell phone,” says 15-year-old Taylor. “You think, ‘Oh, that’s why,’” as if such a scenario makes sense to her, more than surprises her.

The teenagers confess they text all day, every day. But when it comes to driving, they say even looking at their speedometer too long messes them up. So when they are licensed drivers, Taylor and Joan will put their cell phones away. They’ve seen the commercials: “This was my sister. This was the text ….”

Above: A deadly crash where a driver was texting. There is no clear data to show how many accidents in Florida result from texting. At left: Chelsey Murphey’s mom Chris with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Above: A deadly crash where a driver was texting. There is no clear data to show how many accidents in Florida result from texting. At left: Chelsey Murphey’s mom Chris with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Their driving instructor, Peter Duva, has been teaching teenagers to drive for 10 years through the Palm Beach County Safety Council. Mr. Duva does not text, describing himself as “old school.” When he sees someone driving and texting, he rolls down his window and tells them: “Drive.”

Mr. Duva does this in front of his students, trying to embarrass their own temptation to text right out of them. He knows Taylor and Joan are smart enough not to, he just hopes they have enough self-discipline, as one of the girls admits, “My Mom texts and stuff. Even though it’s not good, she still does it, even though it’s wrong.”

Instructor Peter Duva with students Joan Griffith (front) and Taylor Fischer. Instructor Peter Duva with students Joan Griffith (front) and Taylor Fischer. Texting while driving has been banned in 39 states and Washington, D.C. Not Florida. Ten states, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C., prohibit all drivers from using handheld devices. Not Florida. To date, texting and driving carries no penalty in the Sunshine State.

“It’s not surprising Florida lags behind the country,” Mr. Duva says. “We still have no helmet law. Obviously, safety’s not important. They just don’t get it up there in Tallahassee.”

Recent figures show Florida traffic fatalities are up by 4 percent. Looking at numbers through the end of October, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reports 1,958 people have died in traffic accidents this year, up from 1,866 people at this same time last year.

STRICKLAND STRICKLAND Upon learning of the rise in fatalities, Gov. Rick Scott initially asked state highway officials to conduct a textingwhile driving study to see if the state should act on the issue. The study has since been dismissed.

“We don’t have a citation for texting and driving,” says Kirsten Olsen- Doolan, FDHSMV spokesperson. “The governor asked if we thought it was an issue. We can’t say it’s an issue. We have no statistics on it. We’re trying to get information from other states, to see what is going on out there.”

An e-mail was sent to Gov. Scott asking: Where does he stand on texting and driving? Has he been personally affected? Was he looking to the study to pressure legislation? His press office replied, “The DHSMV is looking into this.” The governor awaits their findings.

The crash that killed Heather Hurd on U.S. Route 27. The truck driver was texting his boss. The crash that killed Heather Hurd on U.S. Route 27. The truck driver was texting his boss. “We just implement policy. We don’t have an opinion,” says Ms. Olsen-Doolan, speaking on behalf of the Highway Safety department and the governor. “When you’re involved in policy, you don’t speculate; you need some evidence.”

No date has been set for further action by the state. All the while, the Department of Transportation continues to endorse texting bans as the foundation to highway safety. Police officers who respond to traffic fatalities continue to ask for a law before they see more bodies. And mothers continue to tour high school gymnasiums, pleading, “Please don’t text and drive. My daughter died a preventable death.”

Jay Anderson has spent his life savings fighting for cell-phone-free driving. When he thinks of the inaction of the state, he says, “I hate to call our governor an idiot, but I will. Forty states have banned texting and driving. Ten states have outlawed handheld devices. What study do you need?”

A U.S. Army veteran and retired EMS captain, Mr. Anderson now serves as the executive director of the safe-driving nonprofit he founded, “Stay Alive … Just Drive!” He also serves as the chair of the 2012 Florida Strategic Highway Safety distracted driving team. Rather than have teenagers sign promises to “Just Say No,” he has teenagers sign promises to “Just Drive.”

To Mr. Anderson, anyone checking their e-mail, posting on Facebook, texting or Googling while driving takes the “accident” out of the accident, because they pick up their cell phone by conscious choice. So he travels Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, trying to impress upon young drivers and highrisk drivers alike, “Please think of all the reasons you have to make it home,” before you reach for your cell phone.

Mr. Anderson says he has probably given the same PowerPoint presentation 500 times to more than 25,000 people. Slide by slide, he shows the statistics:

¦ You are four times more likely to crash while you are talking on your cell phone.

¦ You are 23 times more likely to crash while you are texting.

¦ Every 45 seconds, a distracted driver makes someone else eligible to park in a handicap parking spot.

Then he moves on to insurance studies and national data:

¦ To send and receive a text message takes an average of 4.6 seconds. In that amount of time, if you are traveling 55 mph, you have driven the length of a football field.

¦ 90 percent of Americans find distracted driving to be a problem, though 75 percent admit to using their cell phones while they drive.

He then tells the stories, putting faces and families to these numbers. Faces like five young brunettes who had just graduated from high school and were riding down a rural highway when they hit a semi-tractor trailer head on. Phone records indicate a text had been sent from the driver’s cell phone 38 seconds before the first 911 call. “These five beautiful young ladies will never graduate college,” Mr. Anderson says. “Their dads will never have the opportunity to walk them down the aisle. They will never have grandbabies for grandpa and grandma to spoil.”

He clicks to the image of a Volkswagen smashed against a semi-truck. A 17-year-old boy was texting his girlfriend, telling her he was going to be late, when he crossed over the center line and ran into the semi. “His body was cut in two,” Mr. Anderson says. “First they removed his upper torso, then his lower torso.”

Click to the story of Heather Hurd, a young woman who left work at Walt Disney World to meet her parents and plan her wedding. Ms. Hurd was killed in a nine-car pileup. The truck driver responsible was texting his driver’s log to his boss. “Her parents were no longer planning her wedding,” Mr. Anderson says. “They were planning her funeral.”

But the story that chokes him up the most would be the story of a girl who’s still alive.

Hannah Grant sits in her wheelchair, unable to speak, as her mother recalls “when this all happened.” Lynn Grant brushes her daughter’s teeth, puts sneakers on her daughter’s feet, applies ChapStick to her daughter’s lips, preparing Hannah for her daily physical therapy. Lynn’s role as mother has moved beyond that of nurturer to caregiver.

Five years ago, Mrs. Grant was driving her daughters to a birthday party in Fort Myers when a woman ran a red light and hit them. Hannah took the brunt of the crash. She was 6 years old.

“I couldn’t turn around,” Mrs. Grant remembers. “I couldn’t reach my kids. I could see Shannon (her oldest daughter) breathing, but I could not see Hannah’s chest.”

Hannah was in a coma, on a ventilator for 22 days before she opened her eyes. Her mother describes her traumatic brain injury as a “disconnect between her body and her brain.” Her family’s still waiting for things to “connect back,” it just hasn’t happened yet.

The Grants believe the woman who hit them was either texting or talking on her cell phone. Authorities did not look into the matter. “It wouldn’t do us any good,” Mrs. Grant says. “There’s no law against handheld devices.” They do know she was driving a route she drove every day, one of those routes where the car drives itself.

Hannah’s big sister Shannon feels guilty for being healthy, guilty for growing up. She cannot help but contemplate, “If only I had sat in that seat.” She clings to her childhood, remembering nights when Hannah would slip into her room so the two sisters could fall asleep together.

“What happened to us … how much my life changed in that moment … I don’t want that to happen to anybody else as innocent as Hannah,” Shannon says. “Just looking down at your phone to text somebody … you’re being really hurtful.”

The Grants would like to see a universal law against the use of cell phones while driving. Traffic Homicide Investigator Jason Sandt could not agree with them more. To any legislator pushing anti-texting-while-driving bills, Officer Sandt says, “You’ve got my vote.”

Working through the Fort Myers Police Department for seven years, Officer Sandt has pulled over drivers who were surfing Craigslist, drivers with their laptops open, drivers who don’t veer their gaze away from their screen even as he approaches their window.

“You constantly see someone on their phone, driving doing this,” says Officer Sandt, air-texting with his thumbs. “Both of their hands are on their phone, their knee’s on the wheel and they’re going down the street. That’s careless driving in my eyes.”

He sees these drivers swerving in and out of traffic, driving around like big kids playing video games. He equates texting drivers to drunk drivers — they have no idea how they made it home. He asks, “How many people have to die for (the state) to lay down the law?”

Administrator David Strickland of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the nation lost more than 3,000 people to distracted-driving-related crashes in 2010. “Three thousand families are a lot of families losing their loved ones.”

Administrator Strickland and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are encouraging states to enforce tough cell phone laws, but they are also encouraging drivers to “Take responsibility. Put the phone down.”

More than implementing some enforcement regime, they are trying to change driving culture, change driving behavior. “You make an individual decision to handle a text while you’re driving 55 mph down the express- way,” Administrator Strickland says. “Research shows people are not OK with other people (texting) around them,” yet he continues to see drivers texting egregiously.

Kris Murphy knows the danger goes beyond texting. Ms. Murphy lost her daughter to a driver talking on his phone. Crossing U.S. 41 in Naples, Chelsey Murphy was run over. She was 19.

Driving home from work, Ms. Murphy saw the police cars and the ambulance. In the pit of her stomach she knew it was Chelsey. Then she saw her daughter’s shoes, her daughter’s purse, lying in the road.

Ms. Murphy shares these memories looking at pictures of Chelsey on her computer, as if to speak she needs to look at who she doing it for, look at who she’s living for. “My daughter died a preventable death,” she says. “All her dreams — being a Marine, being a mom — a preventable death took it all away.” Chelsey was four weeks pregnant when she died.

When Ms. Murphy thinks of cell phones, she feels more than progress; she feels pain. She shares Chelsey’s story with high school students and Allstate insurance classes as her way of working through it. “I want people to know who Chelsey was,” she says. “I want people to know what I lost.”

On a YouTube public service announcement filmed by the DOT, “Faces of Distracted Driving,” Ms. Murphy says, “If people would just put their cell phones down and say, ‘You know, I learned this from Chelsey Murphy,’ that would be great.”

She supports a texting ban in Florida and does not understand the lethargy of the state. “They want studies,” she says. “While you’re doing your studies, more people die.”

With all the stories she’s heard and the story she’s told, Ms. Murphy feels passing a law should be simple for legislators. But she has resigned herself to the notion, it’s going to take one of their own stories, the heartbreaking loss of one of their own children, to pass a law.

State Rep. Irv Slosberg did lose a daughter to the road. He says her death was the culmination of speed, music, not paying attention and not wearing seatbelts.

Florida’s seat belt law has since been passed in honor of his daughter — the Dori Slosberg and Katie Marchetti Safety Belt Law — allowing police officers to pull someone over for not wearing their seatbelt.

The Democrat representing Boca Raton now has his sights set on texting and driving, saying, “It’s totally out of control.” He intends to reintroduce a bill where minors will not be allowed the use of their cell phones — no texting, no talking while driving — but revert back to what he believes to be the original purpose of cell phones, to be used in emergency situations when they have pulled off the road. He will also co-sponsor another bill, one aimed at hands-free driving for everyone.

“Road safety legislation takes a long time. I don’t know why,” Rep. Slosberg says. “All I know, this business is just like every other business: it’s all about relationships. So I’m making relationships with other representatives and senators and being persistent, yet understanding it’s going to take time to get them to see things my way.”

Truth be told, just as many lives as legislators could save by signing their names, drivers could save by not picking up their phones. ¦

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