I-Team Report: Distracted Driving - WNEM TV 5

I-Team Report: Distracted Driving

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(Source: WNEM) (Source: WNEM)

In just 3.2 seconds Maureen Howell’s life changed forever.

On February 14, 2005, her son Samuel was in a car accident that left him clinging to life for months.

Samuel survived the ordeal, but would never be the same.

“I lost a son and I had to grieve for him and come to love another son. Sam’s very much alike as he was on the inside. But he struggles and I will always be broken-hearted about it. That part will never heal,” Maureen told TV5.

Samuel was heading home when he lost control of his car on a stretch of M-52 near his home. He said he heard his cell phone go off. As he reached for it, he veered off the road.

“And when I did I saw I was off the road and so I slammed on the breaks to no avail because I was airborne at that point,” Samuel said.

The force of the impact forced the vehicle’s roof to collapse on Samuel’s head, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury.

Eleven years later he’s still recovering from the wreck, a heavy price to pay for a life-changing decision.

“I do therapy about four days a week generally now. It used to be I would do therapy seven days a week. And it was usually three therapists a day. And it was six hours of therapy every day,” Samuel said.

A model student, a drummer in the band, a soccer player and a science whiz, Samuel was working closely with researchers from Harvard and hoping to become a doctor.

His choice to reach for his cell phone changed all that.

“Whatever you’re doing, it’s not worth it,” Samuel said.

The I-Team discovered that despite warning after warning and tragedy after tragedy, distracted driving is a growing epidemic in Michigan with no signs of slowing down.

Michigan State Trooper Amy Belanger said electronic signs along any interstate tell the tragic tale.

“It’s a huge problem and it’s only going to continue to get worse.”

The signs flash the number 863 deaths, up 58 from November 2015.

The I-Team found out that 39 of those fatalities were directly attributed to distracted driving. Three of them here in our region.

The details behind them are vague at best, only listing “other activity inside the vehicle” as a cause.

“The numbers are probably somewhat accurate, but I guarantee there’s probably a lot more out there that weren’t reported,” Belanger said.

Does that mean distracted driving ads aren’t working?
The I-Team discovered it’s almost impossible to tell. Right now there’s no way to get a true reflection on the severity of the problem. As we investigated, the state police told TV5 troopers are not always filling out this crucial section of their fatal accident reports.

That’s right, a clerical error is hampering the state’s ability to fully understand the scope of the problem in our state.

“Well again, it’s something that’s new. So I think it’s just going to be repetitiveness [to get law enforcement to check the box and fill out the report correctly]. The more accidents we encounter and we get the driver to admit that they were on their phone, or we actually visually saw them on their phone. Or somebody else saw them on their phone. The more we do it I think the more it will become second nature for us,” Belanger told TV5.

State legislators are trying to crackdown on distracted driving. Introducing a measure that takes money out of your pocket and adds points to your license if you’re caught with a phone in your hand.

“It’s really about public safety. It’s about keeping the roads safe. And I like to tell people you can have your freedom, but when you get into the vehicle, the rest of us on the road have the freedom to live,” said Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy), the State Representative behind HB 5687.

If the bill becomes law distracted drivers would be fined $250 for the first violation, $500 for a second and one point on your license. The third violation would cost you $500 plus 2 points on your license.

For Howrylak this bill is personal.

Earlier this year he was involved in a 3-car accident caused by a distracted driver.

“Whatever is happening on that mobile phone at that time quite frankly can wait for us to get into a safer position.”

For Samuel and his family, they’re reminded of the consequences of distracted driving every day. And urge all of us to keep our eyes on the road at all times.

“Whatever you’re doing is not worth it. Stop your car. Pull over and do what you got to do and hit the road. You’ll be better for it in the end,” Samuel said.

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