Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Driving while distracted is deadly

On July 25, 2009, my 19-year-old son, Eric, was killed while cycling by a distracted driver east of Santa Maria who we believe was texting in the immediate proximity of the collision.

A molecular biology major at UC Berkeley, the world lost a bright light on that straight, unobstructed road.

This unnecessary death highlights a growing menace in our society. Now more than 80 percent of accidents involve distraction. Cell phone use and texting quadruple the risk of an accident. A driver using a cell phone is as impaired as a driver who is legally drunk. Although illegal in California, the penalty for killing while distracted by a hand-held device is minor and not proportionate to alcohol-related penalties.

Cell phone service providers have taken very different approaches to this growing threat. Verizon has been very proactive, supporting California legislation prohibiting hand-held use while driving as well as funding public education to discourage this activity. AT&T and Sprint have not acted in the public interest. They both lobbied against passage of a ban on hand-held device use and have not campaigned against this illegal activity.

Insurance companies understand the financial costs of distracted driving. Newer technologies are being developed that can prevent cell phone use while driving. Nationwide Mutual Insurance is planning to offer discounts to customers who utilize this technology. Other companies are studying the issue.

The federal government is preparing to enact a national educational campaign discouraging distracted driving. In January, texting by commercial truck drivers was criminalized.

Recently, Focusdriven, a national organization dedicated to eliminating distracted driving, was founded.

We are all at risk from distracted drivers. Now is the time to take action. Oprah Winfrey has championed the automobile “no phone zone,” a policy parents can both insist upon and model. Talk to your children about the dangers today.

Lobby your legislators to mandate appropriate penalties for distracted drivers. Complain if your cell phone service provider has policies that endanger public safety. Switch providers if they are unresponsive. Query your auto insurance about cell free discounts. Join an organization such as Focusdriven (focusdriven.org). Act today! Don’t wait until death strikes your loved ones.

Robert Okerblom lives in Santa Maria.

Editor’s note: California Highway Patrol found that distracted driving was the cause of the crash that killed Eric Okerblom. The Okerblom family says subpoenaed phone records show that the driver, Katelin Edwards, had received a text on her cell phone near the time of the collision. Edwards has declined to say what it was that distracted her.