DAVENPORT – Building a national organization with the proven ability to dramatically save lives is no small task. But in the past year, a Chicago-based nonprofit working to make the nation’s roads safer has demonstrated a remarkable ability to influence lawmakers, auto manufactuers and insurance firms alike.
It’s just unfortunate, Russell Hurd says, that all of this had to start in a moment of great personal tragedy for his family.
“We try to get through to people that this can happen to anyone,” Hurd said. “Distracted driving doesn’t discriminate.”
Hurd, who lives in Maryland, has never recovered from the painful loss of his daughter, Heather, who was killed on Jan. 3, 2008, while riding with her fiance to Walt Disney World to plan their wedding. Heather was driving on U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County and was stopped at a traffic light when a truck driver ran through the light and crashed into her car. She was killed instantly.
The truck driver had been distracted by a text message he was checking on his cell phone, and hadn’t notice the light was red.
It’s a tragedy that Hurd doesn’t want any other families to ever endure.
“I’ve said it a million times, everybody has a Heather in their life,” he said. “It may not be a daughter, but it could be someone they love with all their heart. And if you think about losing them to something as ridiculous as a text message, put yourself in their position. It’s never-ending pain.”
In the three years since Heather’s tragic death, Hurd has become an advocate for safe driving habits. He’s been a guest speaker at a national summit on distracted driving, and was instrumental in getting the Maryland legislature to pass a law banning all cell phone use while driving, making texting a moving violation. It was called Heather’s Law.
Last January, Hurd traveled back to Davenport for a ceremony at the Berry Town Center, for the official dedication of a stretch of U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County as the Heather Hurd Memorial Highway. He also serves on the board of directors of Focus Driven, a national group modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Their message: that saving a life on the highway can be as simple as shutting off your cell phone while behind the wheel of a car.
“We’re trying to create awareness among all 50 states,” Hurd said.
There are differences, though, between the task that Focus Driven faces and the challenge that MADD confronted when it was first founded in 1980. While drunk driving has resulted in the deaths of thousands and thousands of innocent victims, the vast majority of motorists on the nation’s highways do not drink and drive. It’s also been relatively easy to convince lawmakers in the 50 states to increase penalties for driving while intoxicated.
On the other hand, it’s been estimated that 90 percent of all motorists in this nation look at text messages while they’re driving. Even if some do it while stopped at a traffic light, they often continue reading their text messages once the light has changed.
And convincing lawmakers to prohibit texting while driving hasn’t been an easy sell in every state, including here in Florida, Hurd said. So Focus Driven has a much tougher task ahead of it.
“When Mothers Against Drunk Driving first started, I think you’ll find they had some very similar statistics,” Hurd said. “People didn’t take the issue as seriously then as they do today. Today we find it socially unacceptable.”
Focus Driven hopes to changes attitudes in the same way, by convincing people that becoming distracted by a text message isn’t worth the risk if lives are at stake. And that’s exactly the message Hurd conveys when he talks about the loss of his daughter.
“We’re trying to change a culture so it is socially unacceptable to drive while texting,” he said. “It is an uphill battle, but we’re fighting it one day at a time. This issue is really still in its infancy. We’re trying to get the word out every day. It’s estimated that 500,000 people are injured as a result of distracted driving. No cell phone calls or text messages are worth a life.”
Last month, the nation’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, tried to raise awareness of this issue by announcing that April was National Distracted Awareness Month. Still, cell phones have become a particularly problematic distraction, Hurd said, since the technology has become more sophisticated every year.
“It’s almost like an addiction,” he said. “We all have to be constantly in contact. And it’s a very sexy thing to do, bells and whistles on the phones. It makes it all the more addicting. But people need to know that when you’re in a car you need to concentrate on that one thing and one thing only, and that is driving.”
Focus Driven was formed a year ago, and is based in Chicago. The board of directors, Hurd said, is sadly made up of people who have lost a loved one to a distracted driver.
Today, 35 states ban texting and driving, although Florida isn’t one of them. Hurd said opponents typically argue that there are already laws against distracted driving on the books, and the key is to enforce those laws, not create new ones.
“That’s the main resistance we’ve been facing, that the government doesn’t have a right to impose on what you do in your own vehicle,” Hurd said. “But where your rights end and mine begin is a fine line. You don’t have a right to kill me — and this is happening far too often.”
Even if lawmakers have been hesitant to change the law, law enforcement agencies are well aware of how dangerous this problem is.
Donna Woods, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, said her agency has done several public awareness campaigns to warn residents about the risks of distracted driving.
“You want to bring as much attention to the issue as possible,” Woods said. “It’s any device that takes your mind off the road. It’s eating. It’s changing the radio. It’s grooming. It’s any time you take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road.”
Twis Lizasuain, public information officer for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, said her agency hasn’t done any public awareness campaigns yet, but they are considering it.
“It is a concern, especially with the Affected Drivers Unit, because they pull over people driving erratically because they are texting,” she said. “It causes a danger not only to the driver, but to the other motorists on the road as well.”
Focus Driven keeps pushing for new laws, and has helped convince leading insurance firms to launch television commercials warning about the dangers of distracted driving, including texting while driving. The nonprofit has also worked with some of the leading auto manufacturers on new technology that would make shut down cell phones inside the vehicle if the motorist is on a crowded highway. That may be, Hurd said, one of the best possible solutions to this ongoing problem.
“Ford has promoted their hands-free technology in their cars,” he said. “If half the cars on the road are moving at a certain speed, those (cell phone) devices are inoperable.”
If it works, he said, Focus Driven may happily cease to exist.
“If it can’t be done any more, then we’re out of business — and the problem is solved,” he said.
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