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Distracted driving leads to tragedy

Tammy Garlock always keeps her cellphone set on vibrate. She can’t stand to hear it ring, because it reminds her of the day five years ago when she and her husband, John, received a call any parent would dread.

Garlock’s 17-year-old son, Brian, was driving to work in Pineville a little before noon on June 12, 2008, when he looked down at his cellphone to call his girlfriend and then followed his friend’s truck into oncoming traffic at an intersection.

A truck hit the driver’s door of Brian’s Honda Civic, spinning his car into another truck that hit the passenger’s door.

Two hours later, Brian died of extensive internal injuries and traumatic brain injury, and Tammy Garlock’s life hasn’t been the same since.

“We just couldn’t believe it,” said Garlock, of Mint Hill. “I thought, ‘This is not my life. I’m not this person. I don’t know how to do this. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be.’ ”

Dangers of distracted driving

Distracted driving is the cause of more than 3,000 deaths each year, AAA estimates. And a study released last week by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds that even devices designed to be less of a distraction in the car can still have dangerous effects on drivers.

AAA says there are three sources of driver distractions: visual, which take the eyes off the road; manual, which take the hands off the wheel; and cognitive, which take the mind off the task of driving.

Analyzing common driving tasks such as listening to the radio, talking on a handheld phone and interacting with a speech-to-text communication device, the new study shows that hands-free devices can be just as cognitively distracting as handheld devices.

Subjects using a text-to-speech system had the highest level of cognitive distraction.

Angela Vogel Daley, a spokesperson for AAA Carolinas, said hands-free devices can give drivers the illusion of safety because they eliminate the element of manual distraction, but the degree of mental distraction is what’s key to assessing the danger.

“When you’re mentally distracted, you’re not completely paying attention to the road, not paying attention to visual cues,” Daley said. “So many automakers are focusing on the hands-free, but it doesn’t necessarily make you any safer.”

Fifty-six percent of licensed drivers surveyed by AAA said hands-free cellphone use is acceptable while driving, while 66 percent said handheld cellphone use is unacceptable while driving.

Distracted driving can be more dangerous than drunken driving or riding without a seatbelt, Daley said. Ninety-five percent of people say that texting while driving is dangerous, Daley said, but half of them still do it.

It is illegal to text while driving in North Carolina, but that law can be difficult to enforce, Daley said.

“If you realize that the temptation is there, put the phone away, or pull over to the side of the road to text or call,” Daley said.

Preventing more tragedies

Brian Garlock’s death didn’t have to happen, Tammy Garlock said, and she’s made it her mission to keep other families from having to endure the pain hers has.

“It’s not something you ever get over,” Garlock said. “You just eventually learn to live the new normal. You learn to live around the empty chair.

“I truly do not want another family to lose a child over a cellphone. There are a lot of things in life that we can’t do anything about, but this one’s pretty easy to me.”

So for the past four years, she’s been doing something about it. Garlock speaks at high schools and various other events, sharing Brian’s story and encouraging drivers to not use their cellphones in the car.

She spoke to about 2,700 Charlotte-Mecklenburg students this year alone, she said. In surveying those students, Garlock found that more than 90 percent of them ride with someone who uses a phone while they drive, and about 85 percent of those students said it was their mom or dad using the phone.

“A lot of times parents don’t realize the message they’re sending, because it’s just not something we think about,” Garlock said. “Brian got the message that it was OK because I was already doing it. I sent that message.”

Through her nonprofit organization, “Dying Changes Everything,” Garlock has distributed more than 90,000 pink silicone bracelets that read “Remember Brian 06-12-08,” a tangible reminder for drivers to think about the risk they’re taking before they pick up their phones.

“We can’t change what happened to our family, but because we’re talking about it and giving out these bracelets, something good can come out of losing Brian,” Garlock said. “We want to do all we can do to prevent another tragedy because of a stupid cellphone.”

Ellis: 704-358-5298
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