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The Trials of a Texter

Posted By admin On September 7, 2011 @ 9:24 pm In | Comments Disabled

Published 5 Oct., 2011

Reggie Shaw sometimes has nightmares.

He dreams he’s back in a Utah jail serving time after he killed two men. They died in a crash Shaw caused when he texted his girlfriend on his cellphone while driving on a stormy mountain road.

Shaw might dream he’s sitting on his thin, blue mattress in a locked cell for 23 hours. Or, he dreams he’s among inmates who despise him because they find his 30-day jail sentence too lenient for two counts of negligent homicide.

Then he wakes, rushes out of bed, opens his bedroom door and his window.

The night air, the stars, the cricket chirps – they all help Shaw understand he is no longer in jail.

He tells himself his nightmare is over.

But he is haunted by his memories.

He killed two people.

He can never forget.

Thousands Die Each Year

Shaw’s 2006 accident and his emotional testimony before the Utah Legislature sparked the passage in 2009 of the toughest texting-while driving-law in the nation.

Other states followed Utah’s lead in prohibiting texting behind the wheel. In July, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 34 states and the District of Columbia now ban texting while driving. Another nine states and the District of Columbia now ban talking on cellphones while driving, the NCSL reports.

Safety experts lump texting-while-driving into a category called “distracted driving,” which can include everything from cellphone texting to changing a radio station, applying lipstick or shaving.

Such seemingly harmless activities behind the wheel have killed nearly 27,000 Americans from 2004 to 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The ongoing fatalities caused by distracted driving have sparked a debate among safety experts. While some say offering financial incentives to drivers is the best way to change distracted driving behavior, others claim enforcement and public awareness programs curb distracted driving accidents.

For Reggie Shaw, now a 24-year-old college student who lives in Salt Lake City, the debate comes too late.

‘What Happened?’

Shaw was a 19-year-old house painter on the stormy morning of Sept. 22, 2006. As he drove to work through the mountains of Northern Utah, pockets of hail hit the windshield of his Chevrolet Tahoe.

He told himself to drive cautiously to avoid hydroplaning.

Shaw texted his girlfriend instead.

He thought he could drive and text safely because nothing bad had happened before.

Shaw shared 11 texts with his girlfriend during 30 minutes while on a two-lane highway. Later, he would say he could not remember what the texts said.

After he pressed “send” for his last text, Shaw’s Tahoe hit a Saturn sedan. The Saturn spun out of control and was broadsided by a two-ton pickup truck. The two passengers in the Saturn – James Furfaro, 38, and Keith P. O’Dell, 50 – were immediately killed. Both were husbands and fathers. Furfaro, a mechanical engineer, and O’Dell, a project administrator, were on their way to work at ATK Launch Systems, a science-based, aerospace company in Promontory, Utah. They were literally rocket scientists.

Shaw called 911 on his cellphone and jumped out of his Tahoe. He ran through the rain to help.

The first question he frantically asked out loud was, “What happened?”

No one knew for sure.

I hydroplaned, Shaw thought.

He didn’t blame his texting.

He didn’t even think of it.

Negligent Homicide

A year later, in 2007, prosecutors charged Shaw with two counts of negligent homicide after reviewing his phone records that indicated he’d texted right before the accident. In Utah, negligent homicide was a misdemeanor, and Shaw faced a maximum fine of $2,500 and one year in jail for each count.

Shaw pleaded not guilty in 1st District Court in Logan, Utah. A jury trial was scheduled for February 2009.

Despite phone-record evidence indicating Shaw texted right before the accident, Shaw claimed he had hydroplaned. He just didn’t see how texting could have caused the accident.

It seemed impossible.

But as the months wore on, Shaw began to question himself. No one types a text while driving without hitting “send” at the end, he figured. He must have punched “send” without looking at the road.

And he hit the Saturn right after he sent the text.

During one of his court appearances, Shaw looked at his family on one side of the courtroom. Then he looked at the other side of the courtroom where the victims’ families were seated.

He felt selfish. He couldn’t imagine the victims’ families celebrating the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday without their fathers or husbands when he could still enjoy the day with his family.

Instead of prolonging the pain for everyone involved, Shaw pleaded guilty to the original charges. He would later recall: “…I realized they (relatives of victims) need this and I need this so we can all get on. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for them without a husband or a father.”

In 2009, 1st District Court Judge Thomas Wilmore sentenced Shaw to 30 days in jail and ordered him to perform 200 hours of community service by giving talks to middle and high school students.

The rest of Shaw’s sentence was more unorthodox. The judge also ordered Shaw to work “with legislators in passing a law against text messaging while driving” – a law that would become the toughest in the nation and spark copycat laws in other states. Wilmore also required Shaw to read Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel “Les Miserables” about an ex-con who gets a second chance at life by giving back to the community he took from.

Shaw wrote the judge and the victims’ families: “I have been given back my life through compassion, and I will always remember that … I did commit a crime; I am not, will not and should not ever take what has been given to me and turn it around for my own benefit.”

During Shaw’s month in jail, an inmate mocked him because Shaw was serving one month in jail for texting and killing two people while the inmate was sentenced to a year in jail for texting someone who had a restraining order against him. Shaw was distraught when another inmate dubbed him the “textual offender.”

Jail was a lonely time for Shaw.

While his parents could only visit with him via a television monitor, a religious leader from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was able to visit face-to-face. Shaw needed those visits, he would later say, and “would not have made it” without his church.

Shaw completed his 200 hours of community service by speaking at Utah middle and high schools about the dangers of distracted driving.

After one such speech at a Utah high school, Terryl Warner, a victim’s advocate for the Cache County Attorney, stationed herself with local troopers in the parking lot to see how many exiting students texted while driving.

About one-third of the students texted as they drove out of the lot.

Warner’s numbers square with a 2009 Pew Research Center study that reported more than one-third of teen texters in the 16-17 age bracket admitted to texting behind the wheel. “That translates into 26 percent of all American teens ages 16-17,” the Pew report said.

“We were so mad,” Warner said of her parking lot survey.

“I wish we could get kids to understand the danger of this.”

Two Sides of the Debate

There are two clear sides in the debate over how to curb the nation’s distracted driving epidemic.

Transportation officials say enforcement and public education are the most effective countermeasures. But some psychologists say fear campaigns – such as Shaw’s speeches – don’t work.

“You can’t win that way,” said Gerald Wilde, a professor emeritus of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. “You can’t scare the hell out of people and then think, ‘OK they will behave more sensibly.’ It just won’t work.”

Wilde has long researched transportation behavior. He theorizes that safety laws can make drivers more reckless. Wearing a mandatory seatbelt, for example, makes a driver feel safer so he or she might actually drive less carefully, he said.

Policymakers need to focus on government-based incentive-driving programs, similar to successful insurance-company incentives for customers with accident-free and ticket-free driving, Wilde said in a telephone interview.

On the other side of the debate, Jose Ucles, spokesman for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an email “It’s not up to the government to be giving incentive rewards for good behavior.”

Ucles isn’t aware of any state incentive programs to curb distracted driving. Although enforcement efforts to reduce distracted driving exist across the nation, incentive-based programs don’t exist at a federal level either, he said.

Solutions to distracted driving are still being explored, even as drivers of all ages increasingly use a variety of high-tech devices while behind the wheel, Ucles said.

“They’re doing it every day of the week, when going to work, school, shopping, even in the rain, and with kids in the car,” he said.

At the federal level, NHTSA encourages parents to stop their teens from distracted driving. And in 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order banning federal employees from texting behind the wheel while on the job.

The alarm bells against texting while driving also are ringing in many states.

More than half the states have highway safety plans and goals to lower distracted driving deaths and injuries, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. At least 18 states require driver education programs to include sections that teach the dangers of distracted driving, according to the association’s 2010 survey of state safety programs.

And since states have initiated distracted driver laws, there has been a slight downward trend in distracted driving deaths – from 5,998 in 2007 to 5,474 in 2009, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Board.

The board reported in July that pilot programs in New York and Connecticut indicate that enforcement and public awareness programs “significantly curb texting and cellphone use behind the wheel.”

Reggie Shaw favors the enforcement-public awareness side of the debate. He said incentives would not have kept him from texting while driving because he believed he was a safe driver.

Shaw continues to visit schools to tell his “extremely difficult” story. And he’s getting noticed. Earlier this year, he appeared on Oprah to share his experience.

“I know without a doubt I’m making an impact on at least one person everywhere I go,” he said. “That’s absolutely worth it to me. If I can change one person then I might have saved someone’s life.”

Light Sentence Leads to New Law

Five years after his accident, Reggie Shaw no longer has a criminal record. His two misdemeanor negligent homicide convictions were expunged in June. All court records for his case have been destroyed.

But the 2009 Utah law that his accident prompted now imposes a much harsher punishment on texting drivers. Drivers who kill or seriously injure others while texting now are charged with felonies and face 15 years of prison time and as much as $10,000 in fines. Drivers who do not cause accidents but are caught texting in their cars are charged with a misdemeanor and face up to three months in jail and $750 in fines.

The effectiveness of Utah’s texting law is difficult to determine because no uniform methodology exists to collect distracted driving data, said Cpl. Todd Johnson of the Utah Highway Patrol, in a telephone interview. What’s more, he said, automobiles are increasingly equipped with more and more high-tech distractions each year, so comparing one year to another would be like comparing apples and oranges.

Night Terrors

Five years after her father Keith O’Dell was killed by Shaw on the mountain road in Utah, 23-year-old Megan O’Dell still has recurring “night terrors.”

She dreams she’s on the side of the road, witnessing the accident. She can’t move. She’s paralyzed. She can’t help her dad.

Sometimes Megan dreams that she is Shaw and that she is causing the accident that killed her dad.

Once her husband awakens her, she can’t stop crying. Sometimes she weeps for 30 minutes in his arms.

Before her father was killed, Megan used to text behind the wheel. But that changed after the accident. She even threw a friend’s Blackberry out the window because the friend was texting while driving.

The friend got upset.

“What did you do that for?’’ she asked.

“Out of all the stupid things you could do with me in the car …,’” Megan answered.

Megan’s wedding was bittersweet. “I didn’t have my dad to walk me down the aisle … I got that taken away from me,” she said.

When Megan feels depressed she visits her dad’s grave. Etched onto the light brown gravestone is a picture of a rocket and the words: “He could do anything.”

Still, Megan said she has forgiven Shaw.

It didn’t happen overnight. A few years after the accident, she realized her father wouldn’t want her holding a lifelong grudge. He would want Megan to move on.

Struggling for a ‘Normal’ Life

These days, Reggie Shaw works at a catering company in Salt Lake City while he finishes an associate degree in English at Salt Lake Community College. At 24, Shaw looks like a typical college guy, except that he wasn’t texting furiously during a lunchtime interview with a reporter at a Salt Lake café.

His black Samsung phone was shut off and rested in his pocket.

When he gets in the car, he said, he turns the phone off and places it in the glove box or center compartment. It helps focus his attention on the road. He would “never even consider” using his phone in the car now, he said.

Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, Shaw is tall and fit, with a neatly trimmed goatee. On his right wrist he wears three bracelets. One reads: Don’t Drive InTEXTicated. Another reads: Choose Courage. The third reads: Be Your Best Behind The Wheel, Survive The Drive.

“I’m just trying to live a normal life, but at the same time I’m trying to help people learn from what I did, and that’s something that I will continue doing no matter what,” he said.

But he’s facing a new normal. For a while, before his crimes were expunged, he was turned down for several jobs because of his misdemeanor convictions.

He stays away from Cache County where the accident took place.

“It’s not something you want to be known for, to go to places and have people say, ‘You’re the person that killed two people,’” he said.

Some days, he wakes up depressed.

He doesn’t want to get out of bed. He doesn’t want to talk. He just wants to lie there, he said, and feel bad about himself.

During the first six months after the accident, he recalled, he stayed in his bed a lot and wouldn’t answer his phone.

It didn’t help.

What helps is having students approach him after a speech to tell him he changed their lives.

But those are just moments.

“It’s hard every day,” Shaw said.

He paused and steadied his voice.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever feel peace, completely, for what happened. The hardest thing is knowing that it didn’t have to happen. I think about it every day. And it’s so difficult.”

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