Grieving families plead for stricter distracted driving laws

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2014 - 10:00 PM

Distracted drivers caused 17,500 crashes and 63 deaths in state last year.

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‘Lost in a second’: Shreya Dixit died when the driver she was with reached into the back seat and crashed.

This weekend in Rock County, the Boeve family buried Andrea, who was killed while biking with her little girls when the driver of a one-ton pickup looked down at his phone instead of at the road.

The Riggs family is at a grief conference this weekend, still reeling from the loss of 20-year-old David, who was killed last summer in front of their Oakdale home by a teen driver who had just sent his third text in as many blocks.

The Dixit family of Eden Prairie will spend the weekend planning a memorial walk for their daughter Shreya, who died on the ride home from college when the girl who offered her a lift turned to retrieve something from the back seat and the car veered into a highway underpass.

One out of every four crashes on Minnesota roads is caused by drivers who weren’t watching the road.

Distracted drivers caused more than 17,500 crashes last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and were responsible for 63 deaths. Each crash happened in the split second it takes to glance at a phone, or a radio dial, or the kids in the back seat.

And in that split second, a family’s whole world can be destroyed.

Andrea Boeve, a 33-year-old nurse, wife and mother, tucked 4-year-old Claire and 1-year-old Mallorie into their bike stroller the morning of June 30 and went for a ride along the quiet rural highway that connected the family farm in Steen to the girls’ grandparents’ home next door. On the road behind them was 25-year-old Christopher M. Weber, who told crash investigators he was looking at his phone, waiting to see which number he should press to advance to the next step in his bank’s automated phone system. He said had no idea that anyone was in front of him until he felt a thump and saw bike wheels in his rearview mirror.

Weber, who stopped the truck immediately and ran back to perform CPR on Boeve, now faces a charge of criminal vehicular homicide. His next court appearance is set for Monday morning. Boeve’s daughters, who were injured in the crash, will be getting a new back-yard play set, funded with a share of the $19,000 in donations that have poured into a memorial site set up to help the family.

“This is a classic example of how what you perceive to be a small thing can turn into a giant, horrific event,” said Assistant Rock County Attorney Jeffrey Haubrich, who will be prosecuting Weber. “The victim’s family and the defendant, their lives are changed forever.”

A wake-up call

There are no specific penalties for driving while distracted, but for Haubrich, Weber’s decision to focus on his phone, rather than the road, pushed the event from tragic accident to gross negligence. The accident has also pushed many people in the community to take a hard look at their own driving habits.

“I’ve heard many, many people say, ‘Geez, we need to really think about how we’re paying attention, or not paying attention. when we’re driving,’ ” he said. “Specifically, many people are talking about the use of their phones.”

Nationwide, distracted drivers killed 3,328 people in 2012 and injured 421,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drivers can be distracted by anything from a daydream to a messy snack, but smartphones present a unique temptation.

At any moment, 660,000 Americans can be driving while talking on a cellphone or manipulating an electronic device, according to a national survey of driver behavior released last year by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Everybody lives on their phone and they think that they can drive too. Two or three seconds, you travel hundreds of feet. It’s like driving blindfolded,” said Craig Riggs, who lost his son last year to a teenage driver who had just sent a string of texts and was looking down at his phone again when he rear-ended David, who was stopped on his scooter with his turn signal on, ready to pull into his parents’ driveway.

David remained on life support just long enough for his older brother, who was deployed in Afghanistan, to return home and say goodbye. More than 750 people attended David’s funeral.

A tough sell

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