Shared from the 2017-05-01 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eEdition

D.C. hears distracted-driving issue

Paralyzed Arkansan’s family makes case for stronger law

WASHINGTON — Grant Pyle wants Americans to know what can happen when people text and drive, so he traveled to the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters last week, navigating its hallways in his motorized wheelchair.

The 21-year-old Mountain Home resident sat in the audience, listening while experts and activists discussed ways to end distracted driving.

Up front, Pyle’s aunt, Michele Paden, described this year’s successful campaign to toughen Arkansas’ texting-while-driving statute.

Pyle, who is paralyzed from the chest down, didn’t speak at Wednesday’s daylong safety board roundtable discussion on distracted driving.

“I usually let my aunt do the talking,” he said, adding, “It’s more of a visual [thing] when I go. … When they actually see what can happen, it’s more eye-opening.”

Pyle was a passenger in a car driven by someone using a cellphone.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s 2017-18 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvement includes “Eliminate Distractions” alongside items like “Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials” and “Improve Rail Transit Safety Oversight.”

Last week, officials stressed the threat posed by distracted drivers.

A crash in Texas on March 29 that left 13 people dead is being blamed on a driver who police say was texting and taking pills.

Nationwide, 3,477 people died in 2015 in crashes caused by distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Another 391,000 people were injured.

During a typical moment during daylight hours, 542,000 drivers are using their cellphones, traffic safety administration officials say.

Some of the participants at last week’s event had lost relatives because of distracted driving. Another had negligent homicide convictions; his driving and texting triggered a collision that claimed two lives.

While in Washington, Paden shared her own family’s story.

A few years ago, her nephew was one of the best young swimmers in Arkansas, part of a Magnolia High School squad that would go on to win a state championship.

But an accident on Aug. 31, 2013, left Pyle a quadriplegic.

Pyle, 17 at the time, was a passenger in a pickup that day in Magnolia. The driver, who was focused on a cellphone, smashed the vehicle into a mailbox. The pickup then hit an embankment and flipped over repeatedly, Paden and Pyle said.

“It was just a normal day. I was a normal teenager and the next thing I know I’m confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life,” Pyle said.

As the pickup rolled over, Pyle was partially ejected. It came to rest on top of him, trapping him beneath.

After surgery, Pyle was placed in a medically induced coma. His family didn’t know if he would survive.

While he was lying in an intensive care unit, family members started talking about ways to avert similar tragedies in the future.

They eventually launched a group, Families Against Distractive Driving, a name coined by Pyle’s grandmother.

In 2015, the group pushed for state legislation to prohibit the nonemergency use of “handheld wireless devices” by drivers. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, never made it out of committee.

During Wednesday’s public policy and legislation panel discussion in Washington, Paden told National Transportation Safety Board acting Chairman Robert Sumwalt that it was painful to lobby at the state Capitol and lose.

“The day I left, I felt like just giving up. … It’s very frustrating that sometimes legislators don’t always listen,” she said.

But this year distracted-driving legislation was resurrected by newly elected state Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock.

Rather than fighting to prohibit all hand-held cellphone use, Bond sought to crack down on drivers who are reading, texting or posting material online.

Texting and driving was already illegal in Arkansas, but the penalties were light, Bond said.

And the texts were illegal only if they were sent via a “handheld wireless telephone.” Tablets and other devices weren’t affected. Neither were Snapchat and Instagram.

Bond proposed fining first-time offenders up to $250, with repeat offenders facing penalties of up to $500. (In the event of a collision, the fines would double).

He also changed the language so that it covered “wireless telecommunications devices,” not just telephones.

The stiffer penalties send a message about the seriousness of the infraction, Bond said in an interview.

“Everyone realizes that these smartphones, for all of us, are huge distractions,” he said. “We want people to understand that this is very, very dangerous. If you’re not looking at the road, this can be life or death.”

Initially, the bill had no Republicans onboard.

But a newly elected state representative, 26-year-old Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville, agreed to lead the fight in the House.

“I thought it was important to pass this,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We are bringing attention to the issue. … I think that ultimately will save lives.”

State Farm, the insurance company, also decided to wholeheartedly back the bill. It dispatched Little Rock lobbyist Martha Hill to push for the legislation. Employees of State Farm and other insurers contacted their lawmakers. Officials with Arkansas Children’s Hospital also spread the word.

Introduced on Feb. 20, Senate Bill 374 initially failed in the Senate on March 6, by a vote of 15-9. That vote was expunged, however, and one week later the bill passed, 21-4.

After passing in the House 73-12 on March 22, the legislation was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, becoming Act 706. It takes effect this summer.

Hill, who also appeared on last week’s panel, said Pyle and his aunt were powerful advocates for the legislation.

In an interview, Hill said the new law will save lives and save money.

“It’s good for Arkansans because, in the end, it means lower insurance rates and making our roadways safe,” she said. “State Farm has seen, statistically, that distracted driving causes more crashes and many more fatalities.”

Paden also expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

Passage of the legislation is “definitely something to celebrate,” she said.

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