Fatal Caldwell County wreck another case of distracted driving

Tammy Garlock, whose son Brian was killed while using a cell phone while driving, holds the phone her son was using. She wants a state cellphone law that would allow only hands-free cellphone use by drivers.
Tammy Garlock, whose son Brian was killed while using a cell phone while driving, holds the phone her son was using. She wants a state cellphone law that would allow only hands-free cellphone use by drivers. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

A fatal wreck in Caldwell County this week adds to the list of deaths caused by drivers using cellphones, a practice that causes more than 300,000 collisions and more than 2,500 fatalities each year, according to AAA.

Tequila Cherry, 35, from Connelly Springs, crashed her car while typing an address into the Google Maps application on her phone, killing her 61-year-old father, James Cherry, and injuring six other people.

She was charged Tuesday with driving while license revoked, said N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper F.J. Beam. He said she may also be charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle.

A new safe-driving campaign, launched by AAA Carolinas, urges drivers to put down their phones to prevent similar crashes. It posts bright yellow messages on delivery trucks and at gas stations to spread the message.

The campaign comes during the 100 Deadliest Days, the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day when teen crashes historically climb, according to AAA.

Representatives from AAA Carolinas announced the campaign Wednesday, though delivery trucks with the message “Life has no redial. Stay off the phone!” have already been driving through the Carolinas.

About 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or other electronic devices while driving at any given daylight moment in the U.S., according to AAA.

Teenager Brian Garlock, 17, died in south Charlotte on June 12, 2008, when he tried to make a phone call while turning left onto Pineville-Matthews Road. His car was struck twice, and he died hours after the crash.

In response to his death, Garlock’s mother, Tammy Garlock, started an organization combating driver cellphone use called Dying Changes Everything.

“There is nothing on a cellphone that is worth risking your life,” said Garlock, who spoke at the AAA announcement.

“Life has no redial,” she said. “We all need to stay off the phone.”

Garlock said that James Cherry’s death, also stemming from cellphone use while driving, is tragic.

“That young lady – life as she knew it is over,” Garlock said of Cherry’s daughter. “And that is incredibly difficult.”

Cellphone laws

In North Carolina, all drivers are prohibited from texting while behind the wheel. Drivers under 18 and school bus drivers are banned from all cellphone use.

There is no law banning cellphone use for all drivers in North Carolina.

Garlock wants to tighten state cellphone laws with the Brian Garlock Act, introduced in the N.C. Senate at the end of March, which would allow only hands-free cellphone use by drivers. Drivers could still use phones through hands-free technology such as Bluetooth.

“In my world, it’s not ideal,” Garlock said. “I’d like to ban it entirely.”

However, hands-free legislation is a step in the right direction, she said. “Even though the mind may be involved in conversation, the eyes are on the road and the hands are on the wheel,” Garlock said.

The legislation, in the Rules Committee, missed a critical deadline to be passed during the current session, she said. But if it is picked back up during the next session, Garlock said she will continue to campaign for it.

Preventable deaths

Teenagers have the highest rate of distraction-related fatalities in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several deaths in the Charlotte area have been caused by teens in recent years. In February 2011, a father and his daughter were killed when an 18-year-old reached for her phone, which had dropped in her car, and struck them as they were walking. A 16-year-old girl died after running off the road and crashing her car into a utility pole while she typed a text message to her mother in September 2009.

NHRA drag racer Doug Herbert lost his two sons in a car accident in Cornelius in January 2008. Jon, 17, and James, 12, died instantly when their Mazda collided head-on with a Hummer. Jon had been trying to pass a car by moving into a lane of oncoming traffic on the four-lane road and lost control, hitting the Hummer.

The same year as his sons’ deaths, Herbert organized B.R.A.K.E.S., or Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe, a nonprofit that educates teens and their parents on safe driving and techniques for emergencies on the road.

B.R.A.K.E.S. has taught over 15,000 teens and parents since its start in its free four-hour classes, which give teens and their parents experience behind the wheel facing distraction challenges, skidding simulations, wheel drop-off on a highway shoulder and more.

Vice President Mimi Sabates said that their course includes practice and information that all teenagers should know. “What we teach would be part of driver’s ed,” she said. “That’s what it should be.”

Teenagers spend a portion of the course in a car with an instructor, practicing challenges that can come up during driving.

Instructors emphasize that drivers should put their phones in the glove box or out of sight, taking teens through one exercise that shows that while looking at a cellphone for a few seconds at high speeds, drivers can travel the length of several football fields, Sabates said.

Before starting the car, drivers can use applications on their phones to send messages to callers that they are driving and will respond later, she said.

Sabates said many teenagers learn driving practices from their parents, who haven’t taken a driving course for decades and were never educated about safe phone usage in the car.

Similarly, Garlock emphasized that distracted driving doesn’t discriminate.

“As adults, we all think that the problem is teenagers,” she said. “Distracted driving affects everyone.”

“I don’t want this to happen to another family,” Garlock said. “We never got to say goodbye, over something that simple and that quick.” Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

Bacon: 704-358-5725; Twitter: @erindbacon

AAA campaign

AAA Carolinas is launching a campaign throughout North Carolina and South Carolina to remind drivers not to use their phones behind the wheel:

▪ Yellow signs that read “Life has no redial. Stay off the phone!” will be posted on the sides of delivery trucks, at gas pumps and in gas station windows.

▪ AAA expects nearly 10 million drivers to see the signs as families take vacations during the summer months.

▪ The campaign is being launched during the 100 Deadliest Days, when teens are typically involved in the highest number of fatal crashes.

▪ Drivers are four times more likely to be involved in a crash when using their cellphones and 23 times more likely when texting, according to AAA.