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Cellphones and driving: Is focusing on teenagers enough?

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

Alexie Baugh talks Wednesday, April 3, 2013, in West Jordan about finding out her husband, Curtis, and children Abby and Max were struck by a 17-year-old driver who ran a red light while talking on her cellphone.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Alexie Baugh clearly remembers the night her family's life was changed forever.

It was Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010. Baugh was pregnant and feeling ill, and her husband offered to take their two young children to his parents' home for dinner. She called at 8 p.m., and he reported they were watching a movie. In a second call, closer to 10 p.m., he said they were heading out the door.

Around 11 p.m. came a knock at the front door, and assuming it was her husband having problems with his key or garage opener, she opened it. Instead, she was met by a police officer.

Curtis Baugh, who was flown by medical helicopter to University Hospital and placed in a medically induced coma, remembers none of this. It was police reports and witness statements that told them the story of how the 17-year-old girl, calling to tell her parents she was late for curfew, ran a red light and T-boned the car carrying Curtis, 29, Abby, 4, and Max, 2.

"She was trying to do the right thing, saying, 'I'm late for curfew. I'm on my way,'" Curtis said.

"One thing the police officers did tell me was that there was no question who was at fault," Alexie said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB103 into law, a bill that prohibits teenagers under 18 from talking on cellphones unless they are calling in medical emergencies, road hazards or criminal acts, or speaking with parents or legal guardians.

Some think the law unfairly targets teenagers. Others, like Curtis Baugh, say it doesn't go far enough.

"Let's get people off of their cellphones," he said. "I think it's a safe bet. I think let's just make it straight across the board. I keep thinking that if there's something good that can come from all of this, let's make it happen. Let's do it."

Abby and Max suffered relatively minor injuries and were released from the hospital the day after the crash. Their father was not so lucky. He spent weeks in a coma, undergoing surgeries and was left partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. He has regained much of his mobility, but still predominantly uses a wheelchair and can't use his left arm.

Curtis can't drive due to a loss of vision in his left eye, but the thought of driving, he said, "scares me to death."

In a March morbidity and mortality weekly report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released survey data that showed 69 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 64 had used a cellphone while driving during a 30-day time frame.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who sponsored HB103, said recent surveys conducted in Utah indicate that 89 percent of Utahns agree that talking on cellphones while driving is dangerous.

But when asked whether a law should be implemented against the practice, the answer was a resounding "no."

Still, Perry said he got a lot of questions about why the legislation focused solely on teenagers.

"The overwhelming majority of people I got said, 'Why are you just doing this for teenagers? You have to do this for everybody,'" he said. "I talked to plenty of representatives, but I knew most (lawmakers) couldn't vote for an out-and-out ban. It's difficult to run legislation you know is going to fail."  

Perry said there is a special concern about teenage drivers, though, citing data that reported that while teenagers make up only 8 percent of drivers on the roadways, they are involved in 24 percent of crashes.

"It has to with inexperience on the roadway, but there are lots of reasons teenagers are getting into crashes," he said. "If we can take away one of those things that is more distracting, then we're perfecting their skills as a driver before they introduce bad habits into their driving."

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?'"

When Curtis returned home and needed help with simple tasks like using a bathroom an getting out of bed, that fell to Alexie as well. It was frustrating and depressing for him to comprehend his new limitations, he said. And as his strength grew and he underwent therapy, it was equally difficult for Alexie to have to take a step back and let him struggle through his challenges.  

"He would say, 'Can you come help me?,'" she said. "And I had to stand just out of reach and say, 'No, but I will stand here while you do it. If you fall, I will catch you, but no I'm not going to do that for you anymore.'"

When his wife expressed doubts about her decisions, Curtis quickly said he is grateful to be here. He eventually returned to work after the crash but was later let go in a round of layoffs. Alexie returned to work as a teacher, and Curtis stays home with the two boys, ages 4 and 2.

"I'm in the right place," he said. "These kids needed a dad. I needed to be here. This is the place for me."

Curtis is currently looking for a job, though, and the family is open to his returning to work, even on a part-time basis. Meantime, he stays home and continues to undergo therapy. He said his progress feels "glacially slow," but that his father often reminds him that it's not going from 49 to 100, it's the little step from 49 to 50.

"It's just one day at a time," he said. "I wake up in the morning and do the best I can do, be the best dad I can be. I try to focus on what I can do instead of what I can't."

His left arm still does not function or respond, which has made changing the diaper of a squirmy 2-year-old difficult. So he started leaving trails of marshmallows to bribe the toddler. Alexie said the accident effected Curtis' problem-solving skills, but that staying home has started to sharpen them again.

"You just count your blessings," Curtis said. "I was so busy before the accident. I was hardly home and I remember watching (Abby) wake up one morning and thinking, 'I wouldn't have done this before. My life was so busy. I wouldn't have taken the time to just sit in a room and watch her wake up.'"

The experience has changed the way Alexie views car accidents altogether. Whether in person or on the news, "it hits me differently" than it did before, knowing that someone's life has changed instantly, knowing that someone's husband or child was in that crash.

The teenage driver and her family asked, through a police officer, to meet with Alexie shortly after the crash. She said it was too soon, Curtis' situation was too tenuous and she didn't know what to say that would do more than convey her anger.

"I think my biggest frustration was I didn't know how to say to her to say, 'OK, your license may be revoked for a few months or a year, but you still get to go to prom and you still get to choose what career you want, and you get to go to college and you still get to live your normal life. You will get your license back. You will get to move on, and I don't. And it wasn't my choice,'" Alexie said. "That still is a hard thing, and I'm not sure I could say that to her and have it be a helpful thing instead of an angry thing."

Close to three years later, they have come a long way.

"We laugh instead of cry," Curtis said.

"Sometimes we cry," Alexie said.

Mostly they hope their experience can help and teach others. And they try not to wonder about what might have been had that driver not made that phone call.

"We don't usually go there," Curtis said. "There's enough here on our plate to worry about 'what if.'"

E-mail: emorgan@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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