ST. GEORGE – Traffic signs warning people against distracted driving have begun to appear in Ivins, Santa Clara and various high school parking lots. Soon they’ll be seen on some of St. George’s busiest streets as one family continues to spread awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.
“We felt very strongly about getting the word out about the dangers of texting while driving,” Hayley Warner said before the St. George City Council’s Thursday night meeting.
In early March, Warner’s parents, David and Leslee Hensen, were involved in a traffic accident caused by a distracted driver, an accident that killed her father and left her mother severely injured.
While out on a walk on Dixie Drive in St. George on March 4, the Hensens were by hit by a car that had been rear-ended by another vehicle traveling at high speeds. A police investigation concluded the driver of the speeding vehicle bad been writing a text oh her phone at the time of the accident.
The offending driver has since been charged with second-degree automobile homicide involving the use of a wireless communications device while driving.
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Leslee Hensen and Fred Konrath, the other driver involved in the fatal distracted driver incident , share their story |Video courtesy of the Utah Department of Public Safety
In the months following the incident, Leslee Hensen – who is expected to make a full recovery from her injuries – and her family have turned a tragedy into a crusade of awareness. They created the “Stop the texts. Stop the Wrecks.” blog and campaign that has reached out to high school students and also spawned a billboard and several anti-texting street signs posted throughout Santa Clara and Ivins. Signs have also been acquired by the Washington County School District and Dixie Regional Medical Center. Now it’s St. George’s turn.
The city council expressed overwhelming support for putting the signs up around town, and Mayor Daniel McArthur noted the City of St. George has a policy against city employees using their cell phones while driving city vehicles.
It is against Utah law to text while driving, but in order to enforce that law an officer has to see the driver actually texting, St. George Police Chief Marlon Stratton said. If the driver is making a phone call or checking a GPS app for example, the law doesn’t apply.
“The texting while driving law is difficult to enforce,” he said.
According to the National Safety Council, at least 25 percent of all traffic accidents reported across the nation in 2011 involved talking on a cell phone or texting.
“It’s senseless,” Stratton said.
Utah is considered one of the toughest states on distracted drivers. A driver caught texting can face up to three months in jail and be fined up to $750 for the offense; or, may face up to six months in jail and be fined up to $1,000 on the offense if someone is injured as a result or the distracted driver has certain prior convictions. Other penalties and fines may apply on related offenses – for example, if someone is killed in connection with the incident.
Recently the state legislature passed a law banning anyone under 18 from talking on a phone while driving. Stratton and the Hensen family would like to see the law applied to everyone.
“You shouldn’t have a cell phone in your hand and manipulating it while driving,” Stratton said. “There’s not a phone call, not a text message that is important enough … to endanger not only yourself but all the other people out there.”
Stratton also said warning signs once used to identify potential drunk drivers are now applying to distracted drivers who, he said, “have a driving pattern comparable to a drunk driver.” Inebriated motorists no longer hold a monopoly on things like weaving about in the travel lane, delayed reactions at traffic lights and so on.
Stratton, City Manager Gary Esplin, and other city officials will be examining where to place the no-texting signs, though Stratton indicated they will be placed on high-traffic streets where they will get the most exposure.
“Public awareness is the best thing we can do,” Stratton said.
Esplin agreed. “We should put (the signs) wherever we possibly can,” he said.
Leslee Hensen was present with her daughter at the city council meeting, though neither approached the council during the presentation.
The council indicated installation of the no texting signs will likely take place in the near future, but no definitive estimate on when the signs will be posted along the streets was given during the council meeting.
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