Two years ago, Sylvie Tikalsky hadn’t started driving, and yet, like many teenagers, she thought texting and driving was something cool to do.
Now that the 17-year-old New Prague High School junior has her driver’s license, it makes her angry to see other motorists doing it.
That’s because it brings back memories of Oct. 28, 2015, the day a driver with her eyes on her phone instead of the road killed her grandfather, Joe Tikalsky, 79, as he crossed a country road in front of his house to get his newspaper.
“When I heard it was a distracted driver it upset me so much,” Sylvie said Thursday during a news conference at her grandfather’s house, right next door to her own in New Prague. She lent her voice to announce a two-week crackdown on distracted driving by law enforcement starting Monday.
“I hope in my lifetime distracted driving will be taken much more seriously. Please do not commit a crime as bad as this. Texting is dangerous and you need to make the decision not to text and drive.”
Her plea comes as the number of drivers who own smartphones has skyrocketed — 90 percent according to a recent State Farm study — and more than half of drivers use them while behind the wheel, the study found.
Minnesota law prohibits drivers from using their phones to read or compose text messages and e-mails or access the internet while behind the wheel. Yet the number of drivers caught breaking the law has risen more than 250 percent over the past four years. In 2012, police cited 1,707 drivers for texting. Last year that rose to nearly 6,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
In past years, police have conducted a one-week enforcement in April to ticket offenders and educate others about the dangers of texting and driving. But cellphone-addicted drivers have become so ubiquitous that the agency has expanded it to two weeks this year, starting on Monday.
Under state law, first-time violators are hit with a $50 fine plus court costs. Drivers caught a second time are assessed a $275 fine plus court costs.
With more people texting and updating social media on their phones, crash numbers have spiked. In 2015, there were 7,666 people injured in crashes attributed to distracted driving, which is now the fourth-leading cause of crashes in Minnesota. There were 74 deaths, including Joe Tikalsky.
Oct. 28 was a rainy and foggy morning and Joe was home between the school bus runs he drove for the New Prague School District for nearly 50 years. He was dressed in a neon yellow jacket as he crossed the two-lane country road to get his newspaper from the mailbox. At 7:35 a.m., Susan Ann Russo drove into him. She was convicted, sentenced to four days in jail and ordered to perform community service. Russo, 48, now speaks against texting and driving for Minnesotans for Safe Driving.
“She’s really apologetic. This shows why we have to have eyes on the road 100 percent of the time and hands on the wheel and off the phone,” said Nancy Johnson, a legislative liaison for Minnesotans for Safe Driving.
Sorry or not, nothing will bring back Sylvie’s grandfather, who was known for handing out candy and looking out for generations of students who got on school bus No. 30. His death hit the community 50 miles south of the Twin Cities hard.
“The first day of kindergarten is hard for parents,” said Joe Deichelbohrer, who rode Joe Tikalsky’s bus when he was a student in the 1980s and ’90s. When his son, Frank, started kindergarten in New Prague, Deichelbohrer knew his son “would be OK because it’s Joe.”
Sylvie Tikalsky and her father, Greg, testified at the Legislature this year, supporting a bill that would ban drivers from using hand-held devices. The bill is still in committee and is unlikely to pass this year.
Sylvie has taken it upon herself to speak to her peers about not texting and driving. She’s handing out more than 500 bright red nylon Cell Slips with the words “Hands on the Wheel, Eyes on the Road in memory of Joe Tikalsky, Oct. 28, 2015.”
Cell Slips are sleeves lined with a fabric that blocks radio frequencies from reaching cellphones placed inside, meaning phones won’t ring or ping while inside.
Sylvie teared up at the happy memories of her grandfather and the knowledge that he won’t be at next year’s high school graduation or any other family events.
“I never realized it could happen to you,” she said. “When I got my license last year, I made a promise to Grandpa that I am not going text and drive. I don’t want another family to deal with what we are going through.”