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Texting, talking, driving deaths add up

The sixteen names on the back of Capri Barnes’ Mitsubishi are those of her friends who have died, 12 of them in car accidents.

The 20-year-old hasn’t had a chance to add the 17th name, that of her best friend killed in March.

“I haven’t been in one accident, but I’ve been to 12 funerals,” Barnes said Friday.

It doesn’t make sense why her young friends continue to text while driving after experiencing so many tragedies, but Barnes has a pretty good idea why they do.

“My generation doesn’t listen,” she said. “We don’t know how.”

State Sen. Shirley Breeden made sure during the last legislative session that the dangers of texting or talking while driving isn’t only a lecture delivered by parents. It’s a law that goes into effect Saturday , although the initial three months only serve as a warning period for motorists who don’t think twice about picking up their cellphones instead of using a hands-free device.

It is also a law that affects anybody who slides behind the wheel in Nevada.

“No one likes change, but this has become an epidemic,” said Breeden, who has previously failed to gain support for distracted driving bills. “You need to be responsible while driving.”

Barnes agrees and that is why she became an advocate of Breeden’s bill during the last session.

“If the bill didn’t pass, I guarantee that the 16 names on the back of my car would become 30 before you know it,” Barnes said.

The new law gets some teeth Jan. 1, when first-time offenders will be fined $50, second-time offenders $100 and third-time violators $250.

Between October and the new year, law enforcement officers will pull over drivers talking on a hand-held phone or texting — whether it is while they are driving or at a stop sign. Fines won’t be issued during the warning period, but cops can still nail drivers who are uninsured, have outstanding warrants or are driving under the influence.

Try texting on the down-low and Sgt. Kevin Honea said eventually you will be busted. If he isn’t sure whether you are texting, he’ll just hop on his loudspeaker and blast you a warning.

Nevada was one of the last states to pass a law regarding use of hand-held devices while driving. Breeden said past bills failed because of enforcement concerns and the potential for some authorities to use the law as a tool for racial profiling. She was persistent, though, in part because of the startling figures she read and even more devastating stories she heard.

“It is my belief and hope that everybody will realize how important this bill is,” Breeden said.

Plenty already do. In the past five years, at least 63 deaths on the state’s roadways were caused by drivers using some sort of hand-held device, whether it was a cellphone or GPS navigator.

The families of victims have created an informal club, and it’s not one that anybody ever wants to belong to.

Jenifer Watkins never wanted to be in it, but in 2004, she joined.

No one ever wants to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary in a wheelchair. That is what happened to Watkins. In 2004, her husband pulled over to help a friend whose car had broken down on U.S. Highway 93. A teenage driver talking on the phone and tinkering with the radio plowed into the rear of Watkins’ car. The driver was traveling 75 mph. There were no skid marks at the scene.

Brian and Tina LaVoie never imagined they would be club members either.

Their 19-year-old daughter Hillary was ejected from her friend’s car and killed instantly after the driver, texting and speeding on the way home from a road trip to Reno, lost control of the vehicle.

The couple were scheduled to speak to a group of reporters last week about the dangers of distracted driving. Only Brian stepped up to the podium. Tina remained seated, wiping tears from her eyes.

Brian remembered what Hillary wore when he dropped her off at her friend’s house. He remembers the smell of her perfume. He remembers what was playing on the radio. He remembers the last words to her: “Follow the rules.”

“A year and a day ago was the last time I saw my daughter,” Brian said Friday. “Her little body was so beaten and bruised, the coroner asked me not to come identify the body. We sent pictures instead.”

It’s easy to throw out numbers. Your chances of crashing are four times greater if you are chatting on the phone. They are 23 times greater if you’re texting. Talking or texting is equivalent to driving with a .08 percent blood-alcohol level. Adults are more guilty of talking while driving; and teens are the big texters.

“They don’t ever converse; they talk with their thumbs,” said Erin Breen of Safe Community Partners.

Breeden acknowledges that there will still be statistics. Even though the penalties aren’t as hefty as she first proposed, she hopes they will serve as a deterrent and drivers will think twice.

The distracted driving law won’t rid Las Vegas of all the dangers on the road — maybe that’s impossible. Breeden knows that too.

The senator is part of the club.

Two months after she became the first lawmaker to get a texting and talking bill passed through the Legislature, her 82-year-old father was killed in a car accident. The driver was under the influence of Xanax.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an email to roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com. Include your phone number.

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