Grieving families plead for stricter distracted driving laws
Article by: Jennifer Brooks, Star Tribune · July 12, 2014
This weekend in Rock County, the Boeve family buried Andrea, who was killed while biking with her little girls when the driver of a one-ton pickup looked down at his phone instead of at the road.
The Riggs family is at a grief conference this weekend, still reeling from the loss of 20-year-old David, who was killed last summer in front of their Oakdale home by a teen driver who had just sent his third text in as many blocks.
The Dixit family of Eden Prairie will spend the weekend planning a memorial walk for their daughter Shreya, who died on the ride home from college when the girl who offered her a lift turned to retrieve something from the back seat and the car veered into a highway underpass.
One out of every four crashes on Minnesota roads is caused by drivers who weren’t watching the road.
Distracted drivers caused more than 17,500 crashes last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and were responsible for 63 deaths. Each crash happened in the split second it takes to glance at a phone, or a radio dial, or the kids in the back seat.
And in that split second, a family’s whole world can be destroyed.
Andrea Boeve, a 33-year-old nurse, wife and mother, tucked 4-year-old Claire and 1-year-old Mallorie into their bike stroller the morning of June 30 and went for a ride along the quiet rural highway that connected the family farm in Steen to the girls’ grandparents’ home next door. On the road behind them was 25-year-old Christopher M. Weber, who told crash investigators he was looking at his phone, waiting to see which number he should press to advance to the next step in his bank’s automated phone system. He said had no idea that anyone was in front of him until he felt a thump and saw bike wheels in his rearview mirror.
Weber, who stopped the truck immediately and ran back to perform CPR on Boeve, now faces a charge of criminal vehicular homicide. His next court appearance is set for Monday morning. Boeve’s daughters, who were injured in the crash, will be getting a new back-yard play set, funded with a share of the $19,000 in donations that have poured into a memorial site set up to help the family.
“This is a classic example of how what you perceive to be a small thing can turn into a giant, horrific event,” said Assistant Rock County Attorney Jeffrey Haubrich, who will be prosecuting Weber. “The victim’s family and the defendant, their lives are changed forever.”
A wake-up call
There are no specific penalties for driving while distracted, but for Haubrich, Weber’s decision to focus on his phone, rather than the road, pushed the event from tragic accident to gross negligence. The accident has also pushed many people in the community to take a hard look at their own driving habits.
“I’ve heard many, many people say, ‘Geez, we need to really think about how we’re paying attention, or not paying attention. when we’re driving,’ ” he said. “Specifically, many people are talking about the use of their phones.”
Nationwide, distracted drivers killed 3,328 people in 2012 and injured 421,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drivers can be distracted by anything from a daydream to a messy snack, but smartphones present a unique temptation.
At any moment, 660,000 Americans can be driving while talking on a cellphone or manipulating an electronic device, according to a national survey of driver behavior released last year by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Everybody lives on their phone and they think that they can drive too. Two or three seconds, you travel hundreds of feet. It’s like driving blindfolded,” said Craig Riggs, who lost his son last year to a teenage driver who had just sent a string of texts and was looking down at his phone again when he rear-ended David, who was stopped on his scooter with his turn signal on, ready to pull into his parents’ driveway.
David remained on life support just long enough for his older brother, who was deployed in Afghanistan, to return home and say goodbye. More than 750 people attended David’s funeral.
A tough sell
Driving while texting has been illegal in Minnesota since 2008. Last year, 2,189 drivers were cited for texting, up from 1,718 the year before. Craig and Peggy Riggs have lobbied the Legislature to increase the penalties for distracted driving. Unlike someone who drinks and climbs behind the wheel, “you can get pulled over six times for texting and driving and you’re going to get the same fine,” Craig Riggs said.
A study by the University of Utah found that the risk of getting into an accident while talking on a cellphone was equivalent to the risk of getting behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of 0.08. Talking on a hands-free phone did not significantly reduce the risk.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee, who wrote the state’s texting ban, has pushed for a ban on all cellphone use behind the wheel.
That idea has been a tough sell in a state with a lot of miles of road and a long record of resistance to government interference in people’s driving habits: Minnesota was one of the last states to adopt mandatory seat belt laws and to lower the blood alcohol limit for drivers to 0.08.
“The prospects of getting a cellphone ban are not great, although I think it’s the proper public safety policy and I would strongly support it,” said Hornstein, who made an unsuccessful attempt to ban cellphone use by drivers in 2011, after an appeal for a nationwide ban by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
His attempt to ban cellphone use in road construction zones fell flat this year. “There doesn’t appear to be a groundswell [of public opinion] that is pushing the Legislature toward this.”
The length of a football field
On the flat, dull stretches of highway around Detroit Lakes, it’s easy for Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow to see the distracted drivers — they’re the ones drifting in the lanes, or crashing on wide-open roads in perfect conditions. He’s pulled alongside cars going 70 down the highway with a child in the back seat and a glowing phone propped up on the steering wheel between the driver and the road. When he pulls those drivers over to write the $150 ticket, they give him a wide-eyed “what did I do?” look.
At highway speeds, a car travels the length of a football field in the four or five seconds it takes to send a text, Grabow said.
“You’ve just drifted the length of a football field with your eyes off the roadway,” he said. “What could change in that time? Could you drift over the centerline into oncoming traffic? Could you drift over onto the right shoulder, across that fog lane there? Maybe there’s somebody out riding their bike, or they’re out for a walk, or somebody out jogging or changing a tire. That’s how fast it happens.”
While some families hope for tougher laws, Shreya Dixit’s loved ones have devoted themselves to education, and to encouraging young Minnesotans to drive distraction-free.
Dixit was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin — a kind, bright, happy 19-year-old — when she was killed on a ride home in November 2007. The car’s driver, an acquaintance from school who offered her a last-minute lift, walked away from the wreck with a ticket for inattentive driving and a $113 fine.
“Shreya was lost in a second,” said her father, Vijay Dixit. “Our story is more than six years old. Since then, many similar stories have been told.”
Desperate to see some good come from a senseless loss, her parents and sister established the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation.
The foundation offers college scholarships, helps needy students pay for driver-education classes and has developed classroom materials, online courses and a documentary, all hammering home the warning that distracted driving can kill. “We are doing it for ourselves, to preserve our sanity,” said Dixit, preparing for the walk they hold in Eden Prairie every year in his daughter’s memory. “We hold our walk just a couple of weeks before students go back to school, just to give them a warning: Well you’re going back, you’ll be driving. Please be careful.”
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008