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Cellphones and driving: Is focusing on teenagers enough?

Published: Wednesday, April 3 2013 9:25 p.m. MDT

As a Utah Highway Patrol trooper, Perry has plenty of anecdotes about cellphones and driving regardless of age group. There was the time he drove by a local high school and saw four teenagers headed together, each with a phone plastered their ears.

"There were four different conversations going on in one car at one time," he said. "Four conversations, four people, and the driver on the cellphone? This cannot end well."

There was also the adult driver who passed him on I-215 going 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. Perry got behind the driver in his marked police car and turned on his overhead lights.

"This guy is so ingrained in this conversation that he doesn't realize police are behind him," Perry recalled.

He followed the driver for a half-mile before activating his sirens. After another mile, the driver noticed the police car, hit his brakes and pulled over.  

"That tells you how ingrained his brain is in that phone conversation," Perry said. "That shows how dangerous it is. If he comes upon someone stopped or something happens around him, it's extremely dangerous."

It is his hope that teenagers will lead the way and become an example for their peers, but also their parents. Ideally, teens will see the benefits of keeping cellphones and driving separate and pass that on to their parents.

"I'm hoping they can teach adults and say, 'We're doing it right and saving our lives and are hoping you can do it as well,'" Perry said. "And I'm hoping parents will say, 'My teens can't do it, so I'm going to lead by example and not do it either.' Hopefully, through this process, all of us will become better drivers."  

For now, he thinks the bill was a "step in the right direction."

Some companies, such as ERM, a global environmental, health, risk and safety consulting company, have taken steps to address the issue of cellphones and driving. Brent Robinson, partner and Utah office manager at ERM, said the company had a more informal policy about cellphone use by employees until last year, when a formal policy was implemented companywide.

"Any person that is operating a company vehicle at any time, or a personal vehicle for company use, is required to not use mobile phones or PDAs while driving," Robinson said. "At ERM, we take health and safety very seriously, and we realize operating those devices while driving is dangerous."

He said employees who violate the policy face disciplinary measures, including the possibility of termination. Many of the company's clients have similar policies, Robinson said, adding that he wouldn't be surprised to see more companies adopt such practices.

There are liability issues, of course, but "safety is the primary factor," he said. Robinson added that he and his family have a similar rule.  

It is the same with the Baughs. Alexie does the driving and will have Curtis or even Abby, now 6, handle the occasional calls or messages that need to be addressed while she is driving. If it's something she wants to handle herself, she pulls over.

Alexie saw firsthand the cost of mixing cellphones and driving. She was the one running between two hospitals that first night, checking on her husband and children. The decision about whether to drill a hole in her husband's brain fell to her.

"Immediately I was like, 'Yes. Yes. Just do it,'" she recalled. "Then afterwards, knowing what he was dealing with, I was pretty guilt ridden — especially when he was at home and was like, 'Why am I here? This is worthless,' and going through that major depression. I felt like that was my fault.

"That was my choice to say, 'Yes. Save him.' But I didn't know what the effects would be rather than to say no. We're pretty religious people, and believe he would have gone on to better things, so that was kind of hard to justify and say, 'Well, did I make the wrong decision? Should you have gone on so you didn't have to suffer through all of this?'"

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