It was the first bike ride of 2015 for Penny Verdeck, a 40-year-old mother of two girls who often trained for races and triathlons. She was riding on a country road near her Glencoe, Minn., home on a sunny April afternoon when she was struck by a car driven by Emily Givens. Verdeck was pronounced dead at the scene, the apparent victim of yet another distracted-driving tragedy in Minnesota.
Left to pick up the pieces of lives forever changed were her husband of 17 years, Ryan, and the couple’s two young daughters. Penny Verdeck also left behind family members, friends and co-workers who knew her as an active volunteer at her church, a Girl Scouts leader, an FFA ambassador and an operations specialist at Security Bank & Trust Co. in Glencoe.
Givens, 25, was charged last week with texting and driving in the moments before the crash. The Prior Lake woman told a sheriff’s deputy she never saw Verdeck and was not on her phone, but a digital forensic specialist said Givens opened two text messages at 3:57:13 p.m. — just 46 seconds before she called 911 to report the crash. She’s facing a felony charge of vehicular homicide and two misdemeanors of careless driving and texting and driving. The maximum penalty is 10 years and 180 days in prison and $22,000 in fines.
Last year in Minnesota, 61 deaths and more than 7,000 injuries were attributed to either driver inattention or distraction, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Over the past five years, 19 percent of all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the state were distraction-related.
“We’re going to have to start treating distracted driving as a much more serious offense than we have up to now,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the cosponsor of legislation that took effect Aug. 1 increasing fines for texting or accessing the Web while driving.
The change is a positive step — drivers now face an additional $225 fine for second and subsequent violations — but the paltry $50 fine for the first offense is a weak deterrent and a sad commentary on Minnesota’s reluctance to infringe on the multi-tasking “rights” of those behind the wheel. Chalk that up to a libertarian streak that has long made it difficult to get state House approval for legislation intended to make driving safer. Minnesota was one of the last states to require seat belts; it was slow to adopt stiffer penalties and tougher standards for drunken driving, and it is far from being a national leader in addressing the growing problem of distracted driving.
Legislators should be required to watch “Shattered Dreams: Distracted Driving Changes Lives,” a video produced by the Department of Public Safety. It tells the story of Andrea Boeve, 33, who died in 2014 while bicycling in Rock County when she was struck by a driver who took his eyes off the road to make a loan payment on his cellphone. Lawmakers also should read “A Deadly Wandering,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel’s powerful book on the impact of technology in our lives and the 2006 case of Utah college student Reggie Shaw, who veered across a highway centerline while texting. He hit an oncoming car, causing it to spin before a truck struck it and the driver and passenger were killed.
Of course, all of the videos, books, public-service campaigns and stiffer penalties would not be needed if those who get behind the wheel would take personal responsibility for their actions. No text or phone call is that important, but every day we see distracted drivers on Minnesota roads weaving between lanes or otherwise making lousy decisions behind the wheel. Some of those decisions result in injuries or death.
Our addiction to technology is an epidemic, and unless behind-the-wheel behaviors change, more innocent people like Boeve and Verdeck will lose their lives on Minnesota roads.