Distracted drivers hit the road

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Education: Option Four gives real-life lessons on dangers

Twenty drivers pulled out their cellphones behind the wheel on Saturday hoping to avoid a traffic ticket and learn a valuable lesson about distracted driving.

A go-kart track in Calgary ended up looking more like bumper cars when drivers were told to text and take selfies while navigating the track at Speeders Indoor ProKarts on Feb. 24.

“When I got out the cellphone I hit six people and kept getting hit,” said participant Amanda Hewak.

Hewak attended the first session of the Option Four program, which gives local municipal enforcement and RCMP officers the discretion to offer people caught distracted driving the option to take a course to avoid a $287 fine and three demerit points.

Once a person completes the course, RCMP recommend the Crown prosecutor withdraw the distracted driving charges. Drivers can only take the course once.

Okotoks RCMP Sgt. Darren Turnbull, the detachment’s acting commander, brought the program to town and was at Speeders last weekend to impress upon participants the dangers of distracted driving.

For most of Turnbull’s 21 years working in traffic enforcement, a driver seen weaving on the road was mostly likely impaired. Today, he said it’s more likely a case of distracted driving.

“Fewer people are dying from impaired driving and more from distracted driving,” he told the class. “The number one killer is cellphones. You are way more likely to crash and get someone injured than get caught.”

Turnbull has responded to incidents where distracted drivers weren’t so lucky.

“I’ve been the officer who has to make the phone call,” he said. “Imagine if your parents just got that phone call. Your entire life changes in a blink of an eye. Now you’re planning a funeral. Think of your friends and your family, because that’s who you’re affecting.”

A parent who received that phone call was Calgarian Stephen Battle. His 23-year-old daughter Melody struck a grader while texting her boss to say she was running late.

Melody was in a coma for three weeks, in the hospital for three months and in the traumatic brain injury centre for nine months. She had to relearn how to walk, talk and eat.

“They saved her life, but she lost her life,” Battle explained. “She is not the same girl. My two sons have never been the same. They can’t look at their sister and go, ‘This is my sister.’ I don’t want anybody to have to go through what we went through with a loved one.”

In his family’s desperation to educate others about the dangers of distracted driving, they created Battle Against Distracted Driving (BADD) last summer, a non-profit society focused on education.

“We’ve got to do something about this. I’m here to try to save your life if I can.”

Battle told the students to close their eyes, then open them and imagine they’re unable to talk or move, and have tubes coming out of them.

“What if picking up the phone is the last thing you remember,” he said. “It’s an easy choice. Every phone has an off switch on it. How important is your family to you?”

Melody also attended to explain the impact the accident had on her.

“My friends don’t want anything to do with me anymore now that I have a brain injury and I’m messed up,” she said. “That’s probably the worst thing. My life has never been the same. One moment of distracted driving changed everything for me and my family.”

Melody showed everyone the long, jagged scar that runs from her forehead down her cheek. She explained that she lost the sight in her right eye and doesn’t have the ability to be sad or cry due to her brain injury.

This wasn’t Melody’s first distracted driving incident. She was pulled over for distracted driving in Okotoks six months prior to her accident while visiting her boyfriend.

“You guys are really lucky because you don’t have to pay your fines and give up your demerits,” she said. “It’s like it didn’t happen.”

Melody’s story hit Hewak hard.

“Hearing Melody’s story, and especially hearing from her father, I was trying not to cry,” she said. “It was an eye-opening experience which I did not expect from a course.”

The three-hour session was enough to convince Hewak to keep her phone out of her hands while driving.

“After hearing Melody’s story I will never do this again,” she said.

Sixteen-year-old Hunter Egeland, of Priddis, is also convinced of the dangers.

She was pulled over while exiting a parking lot and now realizes she could have struck a pedestrian or vehicle because she was looking at her phone.

“I wouldn’t want to put my parents through that, especially after hearing what Melody’s dad went through,” she said.

Driving at Speeders also made an impression on the teen.

“It was kind of scary,” she said. “People kept passing me and I hit someone.”

A similar presentation was offered to students at Foothills Composite High School on Monday with hopes to make an impression on the region’s youngest drivers.

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