“Dan, honey, wake up. It’s after 1:00 a.m. and Heather isn’t home yet.”
Wendy knew something was wrong. It was a Tuesday night and her 19-year-old daughter, Heather, was due home over two hours ago. Heather was working until 10 p.m. at their local SUBWAY, and it wasn’t like her to make plans after work without a call or text home.
“Did you call her cell? Maybe she went out.” Dan Lerch was half asleep as his wife of 30 years was urgently nudging his arm. He knew his daughter well. Heather was very responsible, and he was very proud to be her father. Having just graduated with honors from Tumwater High School, Heather was an avid student who now studied forensics at Centralia College. She always loved to watch the television show “CSI:.”Heather was also an amazing athlete with her snow skiing and snowboarding abilities. Dan smiled to himself remembering how much Heather enjoyed their last family vacation in White Fish, Montana in December 2009, with her younger brother, Brandon.
“I have been calling, and it’s going right to her voice mail.” The worry in Wendy’s voice told Dan that sleep was no longer an option. “Why don’t we go out and look for her. Surely her phone is out of battery or maybe she had a flat tire.”
Dan loved raising their children in Rochester, Washington. With a population of 12,000, Rochester was quaint enough to know Heather’s common driving routes – whether to work, school or to a friend’s house. As Dan and Wendy drove around the curve, about 3 miles from home, they saw the reflection of emergency vehicle lights on a white fence. Wendy also noticed a white van with no lights on it. She would later realize this was the coroner’s van.
Dan grabbed Wendy’s hand. Several emergency vehicles were parked with emergency workers and police walking around. Wendy was more curious now than worried, since obviously this accident had not just happened. They parked their car and walked up to the scene. As they looked closer, Wendy said, “Oh my God, Dan – that’s Heather’s car.” They started running toward a state trooper shouting, ‘Hey, that’s our daughter’s car! That’s Heather’s car!” Wendy tried to push through him, and the state trooper stopped her and said, “You don’t want to go down there.” Wendy was very persistent. “Why? We have to help our daughter! That’s her car!” Then without warning, the trooper simply said, “Because she’s dead.”
On February 24, 2010, the coroner told Dan and Wendy that at 10:27 p.m. Heather received a text message on her cell phone. At 10:30 p.m., as Heather was driving along Littlerock Road, she hit the guard rail. They all firmly believe that Heather lost control of her car because she was text messaging while driving. Wendy realized this also meant their daughter had been dead for three hours, trapped in her car, and no one had notified them. As the mother of a teenage driver, I believe that thought alone would break any parent’s resolve.
The coroner said Heather was wearing her seat belt. However, the impact of the crash was so great that it pushed her two feet over into the passenger seat, and she died instantly. As he continued to explain the circumstances around Heather’s death, all Wendy could think about was how her daughter had been dead for three hours and she didn’t know. How can she be dead? Heather had just purchased her new car a month ago for her 19th birthday, and she loved it. She was such a beautiful girl, both inside and out, with so much more life to live. How could something as senseless as returning a text message kill her daughter?
Dan and Wendy did their best to raise Heather as a safe and aware driver. They even made her sign a contract outlining all her responsibilities as a teenage driver, including the promise to never drink and drive, and to always wear her seat belt. They weren’t aware that cell phone use while driving was so dangerous; they had never even heard the words “distracted driving.” Every teenager they knew had a cell phone, and it was definitely Heather’s favored form of communication with all of her friends.
At Heather’s funeral, they were approached by a lady who asked them if they would talk to the Washington State Department of Licensing, and help spread awareness that texting while driving is extremely dangerous, and too often, deadly. They agreed. They have also allowed state troopers to display Heather’s wrecked car at high schools with a clear message of, ‘THIS is what happens when you text and drive. Don’t let an LOL become an OMG.”
Wendy is often asked to speak at high school assemblies and in classes. Although it is very painful for her to speak publicly about her daughter’s death, she wants to help other parents and teenage drivers understand how deadly cell phone use is while driving. Wendy sees people using their cell phones while driving, and she wants to yell at them to put their phones down.
“It’s almost an epidemic,” Wendy said.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, distracted driving is defined as any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing. Any distraction can endanger a driver’s safety; however, texting is the most alarming because it involves all three types of distraction – visual, manual and cognitive.
The statistics of teenage drivers using the cell phone while driving are stunning. Lawmakers are working tirelessly to pass legislation that prohibits cell phone use while driving, especially for teen drivers. Thirty states, Washington, D.C., and Guam currently ban text messaging for all drivers. Eleven of these laws were enacted in 2010.
“Parent involvement is a critical element in teen driver safety,” said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “We ask parents to set rules and enforce consequences. Three rules all parents should enforce include no passengers, no nighttime driving – especially after 10 p.m. but sooner is better – and no cell phone use. This is especially important for novice drivers. These are components of strong GDL laws, and they are rules parents can implement and enforce.”
“Please don’t text and drive. Come home alive.”
-Dan and Wendy Lerch,
For more on Heather’s story, you can visit heathersstory.org, a great source of information for parents and teenagers on the dangers of texting while driving.
[Originally published on www.thesafetyreport.com]