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Fatal crash puts spotlight on distracted driving

By Matthew Kemeny

The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 15 2011 5:35 p.m. MST

in a Feb. 11, 2011 photo shows an accident scene where a dump truck carrying 24 tons of rock salt overturned on Interstate 81 South, trapping a car underneath the wreckage and killing one person. State police believe a distracted truck driver caused the five-vehicle chain-reaction crash.

The Patriot-News, Paul Chaplin, Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — For a moment after the Volvo they were in screeched to a stop Friday morning during a sudden backup on Interstate 81, friends Todd Kocher and David Vogen gave each other a look like they were lucky to be alive.

Seconds later, an out-of-control dump truck hauling 24 tons of rock salt crashed onto their car in the southbound lanes just before the Cameron Street exit in Susquehanna Township.

"Everything went dark," Kocher recalled Monday. "The tarp from the truck went over the windows."

Vogen, who was driving, was unconscious but had a pulse and was breathing, his friend said. Kocher tugged on the passenger door handle, but the door wouldn't open. A person who stopped opened the door from the outside and Kocher crawled out.

Kocher wanted to check on his friend, but he was held back by emergency personnel. Vogen died shortly thereafter.

State police believe a distracted truck driver caused the five-vehicle chain-reaction crash that killed one and injured three. Investigators aren't sure what caused the backlog before the crash, but it's likely much of the traffic was headed to the Farm Show Complex for the Eastern Sports & Outdoor Show, where Vogen and Kocher were going.

Troopers haven't said how the truck driver, Garry Alters, was distracted but that the crash should serve as an example of the deadly consequences of inattentive driving.

Nearly 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in 2009 in crashes caused by inattentive driving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Distracted-driving campaigns mostly center on the problem of texting while driving, a practice popular among teens and young adults.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states lacking distracted-driving laws. Thirty-eight states have some sort of ban on texting while driving. Several municipalities, including Harrisburg, Allentown and Bethlehem, have laws prohibiting texting while driving. But those laws lack teeth because the state's motor vehicle code supersedes any local driving ordinance.

State police have tried to combat the problem with enforcement. Two-week blitzes called TACT, or Ticketing Aggressive Cars and Trucks, are aimed at cracking down on unsafe driving along Interstate 81 in Cumberland and Dauphin counties. Pennsylvania is the fifth state to participate in TACT.

Driving instructor Uly Bell said many motorists and truckers don't understand how long it takes for them to stop suddenly.

It takes one second to observe and another second to react, he said. A car traveling 60 mph will need 270 feet to stop in three seconds. And that's if you're not distracted.

"I think the inattentive-driving problem is human nature. We come from a multitasking society," said Bell, who is in charge of the Commercial Drivers' License program at Harrisburg Area Community College. "People have forgotten if they want to stay safe on the highway, they have to pay attention to what they're doing."

The advice comes too late for Kocher, 46, who is still trying to come to grips with losing one of his best friends. He walked away from the crash with a compressed disc in his back and possibly a broken rib. He needs more medical tests.

Kocher of Elk Grove and Vogen, 44, of Shickshinny, met a few years ago through a mutual friend. They shared hobbies — riding four-wheelers, being outdoors, having a few drinks at the bar.

Like his friend, Kocher recently had been laid off. Vogen last worked in the maintenance department at Procter & Gamble. In his spare time, he liked to hunt and fish.

Kocher said he can't imagine what Vogen's mother, Barbara Vogen, is going through because she just lost her other child, a daughter, in November. Vogen lived at home where he helped his mother with everything: lawn mowing, cleaning and grocery shopping.

"I don't think it's hit me quite yet," Kocher said of the loss of his friend. "I'm just waiting for the pain to go away."

State Department of Transportation safety press officer Fritzi Schreffler said she recently found herself following a car on Interstate 83 north as the driver was shaving behind the wheel. He was swerving in and out of his lane.

Besides lambasting distracted driving in the media, PennDOT goes into schools and holds seminars where safe-driving techniques are taught to students and parents. The U.S. Department of Transportation has been advertising an online video series titled "Faces of Distracted Driving," which features people from across the country who've been injured or who have lost loved ones in distracted-driving crashes.

How high does the body count have to be before people get the message?

"The unfortunate reality is no amount of carnage is going to stop it," Schreffler said. "Until people want to take personal responsibility for what they're doing behind the wheel, it's another day and another fatality."

Information from: The Patriot-News, http://www.pennlive.com/patriotnews

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