Texting while driving can be a deadly activityIt wasn't until after their son's death on Oct. 24, 2010, that Dan and Deb Ellefson knew much about text messaging.
By: By Ed Treleven, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
It wasn't until after their son's death on Oct. 24, 2010, that Dan and Deb Ellefson knew much about text messaging.
What they learned, in the hardest way possible, was that drivers who read and send text messages can be at least as dangerous as drunken drivers, and that young people -- who use text messaging obsessively -- are woefully ignorant of the hazards it poses.
"Everybody texts and the general feeling is, especially among young people, they're texting and driving and they think that's perfectly OK, they think they're being safe," Dan Ellefson said. "But the truth is they're not. It's extremely dangerous."
Late last month, Stephanie Kanoff, 21, of Sun Prairie, became the first person in Wisconsin, and one of just a handful in the U.S., to be convicted of homicide for causing a death while texting behind the wheel.
The case could provide police and prosecutors with a roadmap to successfully prosecuting distracted driving cases involving texting, much like they learned to do years ago in now-commonplace drunken driving homicide cases, said State Patrol Major Sandra Huxtable, director of the state Bureau of Transportation Safety.
"Fifteen years ago it was very difficult even to have OWI cases involving injury or death," Huxtable said. Experience has changed that, she said.
Distractions, and then death
Dylan Ellefson, 21, had stopped on East Johnson Street in Madison on Oct. 24, 2010, to check the racket caused when his car dropped its muffler on the street. Clad in an almost fluorescent Halloween costume, he was walking behind his car when Kanoff's minivan slammed into him and dragged him about 80 feet. He died at UW Hospital a short time later.
A juror who heard the testimony in Kanoff's week-long trial said it didn't matter whether prosecutors proved Kanoff was texting at the moment of the crash. Her driving from the time she got behind the wheel until the crash about five minutes later was distracted by phone calls and text messages and could have caused a crash at any time, juror Sean Warniaha said.
"If there was any evidence she braked or swerved, it would have been a different story," he said.
The Ellefsons, of Sun Prairie, declined to talk about the case until Kanoff is sentenced in Dane County Circuit Court Sept. 21. But they want to make sure their message about the dangers of reading and writing text messages behind the wheel is heard.
Several weeks after the crash, Wisconsin joined about 30 other states to ban texting and driving. Police have always been able to cite drivers for distracted driving, whether it was texting or holding a hamburger, but the law made the ban on texting more explicit, Huxtable said.
In 2011, the first full year that the law was in effect, police issued 219 texting-while-driving citations, according to the state Department of Transportation.
The same year, according to DOT, inattentive driving was at least one factor in 21,778 crashes in Wisconsin that caused 108 deaths and 9,899 injuries, though the data don't indicate how many involved texting.
Studies confirm danger
Dr. Sheila Klauer, who studies distracted driving at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, testified at Kanoff's trial that drivers whose eyes are off the road for two seconds out of any six-second period are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as an attentive driver. And more than 90 percent of rear-end crashes involve drivers not looking in front of them, Klauer said.
"Drivers do not run into things when they are looking forward," Klauer testified.
Another Virginia Tech study, involving trucks, found that drivers who texted were 23 times more likely to be in a crash or near-crash than those who don't.
While Kanoff's conviction hasn't changed the standard of proof required to get a conviction, law enforcement will be more sensitive to collecting and preserving critical pieces of evidence and sharing that with prosecutors, Huxtable said.
Getting drivers to break the habit is another matter. An AT&T survey in April of teen cellphone users between 15 to 19 found that 63 percent send at least 21 text messages a day, and 43 percent admitted to texting while driving. That despite the fact that 97 percent acknowledged it is dangerous.
But it isn't just young people who text. A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of adults admitted to having sent or read a text message while driving.
Dylan Ellefson would have graduated from UW-Madison in May. He loved foreign languages and before his death had spent a semester studying in Madrid. Years earlier, he had persuaded Sun Prairie High School to organize a trip to Japan, and talked about teaching English in Japan.
Deb Ellefson, a kindergarten teacher in Cross Plains, was proud that her son planned to follow her into teaching, as a high school Spanish teacher.
He had done a teaching practicum in a language immersion program at Leopold Elementary School. And wanted to spend a year in Argentina.
"He was very insistent on being immersed in the culture to learn the language," Dan Ellefson said.
During a semester break, he had also planned to learn German, his father said.
"A wonderful, wonderful young man," Dan Ellefson said of his son. "The hole in our hearts will never go away."
(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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