WEST TERRE HAUTE —
West Vigo High School juniors heard sobering stories Thursday about young people killed as the result of texting while driving or other forms of distracted driving.
In one case, an 18-year-old southeastern Indiana girl was killed in December 2011, after she lost control of a minivan. She had an unfinished text message on her phone when she crashed, police said.
The West Vigo students heard another story about a 21-year-old woman who in 2009 was hit and killed while walking across a street; her death was caused by a distracted driver.
The victim’s father, a Philadelphia trial lawyer, developed the End Distracted Driving program, which is being presented by more than 850 attorneys to high school students across the country.
At West Vigo, Terre Haute attorney Steve Williams spoke about the dangers of distracted driving, including texting. “Is it going to take a tragic incident like this for you to modify your behavior?” he asked them.
Distracted driving is not just texting, he said. It involves other behaviors that could divert a person’s attention away from driving.
It can be eating and drinking while driving; talking on a cell phone; putting on makeup; changing a CD; or using a navigation system while driving.
It’s not just a teen problem, Williams said. Adults are just as guilty of texting while driving.
Williams, a trial attorney who often represents victims of accidents, admitted he’s been a distracted driver. He’s eaten while driving, used a cell phone and programmed his navigation system while driving.
As a trial lawyer who handles these types of cases, “I should have known better,” he said. He’s stopped his distracted driving behaviors and urged students to do the same.
He said his law firm handles cases every day in which “we see people that are seriously injured or killed because of distracted driving.”
He described a case in a neighboring county in which a sheriff’s deputy became a paraplegic after being hit by someone who was eating and drinking a soda while driving; the driver spilled a drink and then reached for it, which led to the accident.
Williams provided some eye-opening statistics. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent at 55 miles per hour of driving the length of an entire football field, blind.
When someone uses a cell phone while driving, that person is just as likely to get in an accident as someone who is legally drunk, with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, he said.
Statistics also show that someone who texts while driving is two times more likely to be in an accident than someone driving while legally drunk, he said. “I think that’s an amazing statistic.”
Williams’ investigator, Frank Turchi, a former Indiana State Police trooper and investigator, talked about the times he had to go to parents’ homes late at night and tell them their son or daughter had been killed in a car accident. Often, the grief-stricken parents would collapse in his arms, he said.
Turchi believes the prevalence of cell phones and texting while driving in recent years has increased the potential for fatal and personal injury accidents among young people.
Williams also pointed out there can be legal consequences — both prison time and civil damages — for those who harm others as the result of texting and driving. “It’s not just criminal penalties; you can lose all your assets and money,” he said.
Indiana and 38 other states have made it illegal to text while driving; in Indiana, for those under age 18, it is illegal for them to use a cellphone while driving, he said.
Williams told another story that hit close to home, about a Terre Haute attorney whose niece died in an accident that resulted from texting while driving. The attorney had to go to the morgue to identify his niece, and he then had to tell his sister that her only child had died. The attorney saw that his niece had been wearing a flannel shirt he had recently given her.
Thursday’s presentation had an impact on several West Vigo juniors; some have just started driving.
Amanda Bridgewater found the presentation “pretty depressing and sad.” While she doesn’t text while driving, she plans to stop using her cell phone while driving.
Garett Ray, who has been driving for more than a year, admits to distracted driving, including texting. He said he will stop those behaviors. “I don’t want to hurt any of my family members or myself,” he said.
He found it “astonishing” how many people have died because of texting while driving. He said he hadn’t thought about the consequences before Williams’ presentation.
Baylee Waters said she hasn’t started driving yet, but when she does, “I’m definitely not using my phone, that’s for sure, or anything else. I like to be focused, anyway.”
The program made her aware of the potential consequences of texting and driving. “It’s definitely a shock. It surprised me how much it can affect people while they are driving,” Waters said.
Delanee Lindsay, who has been driving for a few months, said she has texted, changed radio stations and used a navigation system while driving.
She will stop texting while driving and become a more careful driver, she said. Hearing the stories of lives lost “has already changed me,” she said.
She said the talk did have an impact. Until then, “I never thought twice” about texting and other distracted driving, she said.
Williams, who plans to speak at other Vigo County high schools, provided students with a list of steps that can be taken for safer driving, and he asked students to go through those steps with their parents.
If the safer driving list is returned, signed by both by students and parents, students will be entered into a drawing for a $100 gift certificate to Buffalo Wild Wings.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@trib star.com.