Saturday, July 21, 2018
Human Interest

Parents who know terrible toll of texting while driving press for Florida law

Steve Augello buttoned his dress shirt and walked through the crisp air to his Chevy Silverado, a 7,200-pound silver steed in the parking lot of a Tallahassee Microtel. He bought the truck after his daughter died. He liked how safe it felt.

A news station called. He picked up his cellphone and paused against his truck's bumper stickers. Honk if you love Jesus, text if you want to meet him, said one. Another had his daughter's name.

Steve and his wife, Agnes, had spent four hours in the night traveling U.S. 19, past billboards for accident lawyers, past marquees for mayhaw jelly, churches and funeral homes, until they reached Tallahassee with a familiar yen swelling in their chests. They were desperate for someone to listen, to believe that barreling down the road with your fingers flying across a phone should be stopped. That it could be stopped.

Agnes climbed in the truck cabin. Air fresheners made it smell like the beach. Their daughter stared at them from a picture flanked in crosses. Steve pulled out onto Monroe Street, the artery pumping to the Capitol, to the people who make the laws.

Life has spread people thin. Companies downsize staff but not workloads. Television teases one show in the corner of another; stock figures and sports scores swoosh across cable news. Everything is available, all the time, with technology that tests the intangible balance of freedom and responsibility.

Americans sent 196 billion text messages last June. Electronic gadgets were blamed for more than 3,000 crashes in Florida in 2011. When people text and drive, their eyes are down for an average of 4.6 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that's a whole football field.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have some kind of texting and driving ban. Florida does not. While driving, it is legal to text, to use Facebook and Twitter, to send email, to film video and upload it and watch it.

"In the old days, how many times did you have to pull over and make a call from a phone booth?" said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. "Practically never. Now everything's an emergency."

Detert has sponsored a texting and driving ban for three years. This year, it's lighter, more focused. An officer couldn't pull someone over just for using a phone. You could use GPS, talk on the phone, look down and dial. If you got pulled over for some other reason, police could fine you $30 the first time for texting or writing an email, $60 the second time plus three points on your license. If you crashed, you'd get six points.

Supporters say texting is the same as drunken driving — you're welcome to endanger yourself but not everyone else.

Opponents say government shouldn't tell people what to do. They say bans haven't helped and are hard to enforce.

The bill sailed through several Senate committees. But in the House of Representatives, leaders refuse to bring up the partner bill for debate.

With the lawmaking session set to close in March, the Augellos were determined to be heard one more time.

• • •

The morning of Nov. 10, 2008, started like most. The Augellos — Steve, Agnes, Alessandra and Stephen — were a two-car, middle-class family. Agnes was a director at a Spring Hill imaging center. Steve worked at the Publix on Little Road carving meats and cheese.

Allie, as they called Alessandra, was 17. She wanted to study journalism at Saint Leo University. She had a 3.8 grade point average and big brown eyes. She liked to dye her hair and paint her nails. She had a boyfriend for the first time. While other kids were at parties, Allie stayed home or went to youth group.

She was driving, too, sharing a car with her parents. Agnes' father had been killed by a drunken driver. Perhaps because of that, they were more strict than some parents. They paid for private driving lessons. And Allie always called at least once when she was leaving, and once when she arrived at her destination. One time she forgot to check in. Agnes left work, showed up at Allie's school and pulled her out of class.

"You embarrassed me," Allie said.

"I'll embarrass you every day you don't call me."

Allie tap-tap-tapped on the computer in her purple room, where at night she chatted with friends or read about her idol, Marilyn Monroe. Her fingers sailed across the keypad on her silver Sidekick phone, too. But on the road, it went in her purse — not on the seat or the dashboard or the floor, where it could distract her.

She dropped her father off at Publix that November morning. She went to school, then rehearsal for her school play. Before leaving, she called her dad. Steve started dinner and waited, but Allie didn't show. Steve called Agnes at Stephen's baseball game.

"Call her," Agnes said.

"She won't pick up if she's driving," he said. She didn't.

• • •

That same night, another girl about Allie's age was driving to her boyfriend's house.

Alyssa Dyer, 19, had struggled to rise above her circumstances. She had arrests for stealing and drug possession. Her father used drugs and was in and out of her life, her family said, and her mother had died of multiple sclerosis. Alyssa wanted to be a home health nurse like the ones who cared for her mom. She had taken a nursing test and scored highest in her class.

Her grandmother, Betsy Carrion, thought she was looking for love with the wrong people. Betsy hadn't seen her in two weeks. Alyssa acted like she didn't need her grandmother, but she did. She had stopped by the bakery where her grandma worked and announced that she was pregnant. She told her grandmother she loved her, missed her and wanted to get together soon for Betsy's homemade chili.

On Nov. 10, 2008, Alyssa fought with her boyfriend, her family said, then made up via text. She had oxycodone in her system and a cellphone in the car. She dialed her stepmother to let her know everything was fine.

"You're driving," Linda Stankiewicz told her. "Call me when you get home."

A few minutes after she hung up, Alyssa veered.

• • •

By now Steve and Agnes Augello were looking for Allie.

They drove down the main roads because Allie wasn't allowed to drive country roads at night. When they reached the crest of Hudson Avenue, they saw a stew of blue flashing lights. Steve got out of the car and ran.

Agnes saw her husband fall to the ground.

In Beacon Woods, Alyssa's grandmother answered a knock from a state trooper.

Both girls were dead.

Almost half an hour after the crash, a text message Alyssa had sent popped up on her boyfriend's phone.

• • •

Exactly why the crash happened may never be known. It was 2008, before much of the research, before smartphones slipped into the fingers of just about anyone, before the issue was hot. There were no lawsuits, investigations or charges, only sorrow.

But the more Steve Augello thought about it, the more he was convinced Alyssa was texting when she crashed. He thinks Alyssa was in an area with poor reception, and that's why the text was delayed. Alyssa's grandmother doesn't protest. She has never made excuses for Alyssa.

Linda Stankiewicz isn't convinced Alyssa was texting. But she can't forget their conversation that night. She saw the number 7:07 p.m. on her phone's screen after their talk. Three minutes before the crash was recorded.

"That was the part that killed me," she said. "Had I just stayed on the phone with her longer … Was she hanging up the phone with me? Would it have happened anyway? Could I have kept talking to her and kept her safe?"

• • •

Most people have used a phone while driving, even if they won't admit it.

Researchers for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked more than 6,000 people in 2010 if they would take a call while driving. More than three-quarters said they would. Very few situations would make them quit. Bad weather? Half would put down the phone. Seeing a cop, driving at night, going through a school zone or having a baby on board? Almost no one would put down the phone.

The University of South Florida is part of a national study that outfits cars with cameras, trying to capture the bumps, the swerves, the hard brakes.

"The most important thing about it is the near-miss crashes," said Achilleas Kourtellis, a researcher at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "Nobody reports them. We have no data for them. The overall goal for this study is to create a database that will be used for decades to come."

Since the Model T, cars have undergone layer after layer of convenience changes. Car radios came in the 1930s. Cup holders came in the 1950s, when clipping a tray to your window at a drive-in was no longer easy enough. That was way before DVD players in seat backs, navigation systems, backup cameras.

"If you're doing texting, you're not doing texting and driving. You're either texting or you're driving," said John Senders, a 92-year-old scientist and early researcher of distracted driving. In the 1950s, Senders drove with a visor periodically blinding his eyes. "People essentially are single channel devices, like one teller in the bank with one customer at a time."

People think they can do it all, and to some extent, they can. But they can't do it all well. Almost all research on multitasking shows that performance dwindles when people take on too much. It's why professional chefs are usually organized. It's why we have separate living rooms and bathrooms and kitchens, not just one big living space.

"We're good at perceiving gist, the overall meaning of a scene," said Thomas Sanocki, who teaches perception at USF.

When it comes to driving, people feel more secure close to home, where they know the stop sign at the corner, the traffic light, the sharp turn, the speed bump. But they miss the cat darting into traffic. The person walking in the dark. The child riding the bike.

It's called the "illusion of attention."

• • •

After the crash, Steve went to a junkyard to find his Saturn.

He saw the front grille askew and roof cut away. He grabbed Allie's glasses, laptop and leopard print purse. Her phone was still inside.

A 1998 BMW sat next to his car, leather seats covered in shattered glass. Alyssa's car. Steve peered in. He saw a bottle of orange juice and a cellphone on the back dash. He snapped a picture of the wreckage, an image he would pass around for the next three years to anyone who could stand to look at it.

Steve knew he had to see Betsy. Their girls had crashed into each other, but it wasn't their only connection. They worked together at the same Publix.

He found her over by the bakery, passing out bites of pie. Betsy was too shaken to decorate cakes.

"How you doing?" he said.

"Oh, okay."

Betsy started to shake. She set down her pies. They didn't know what to say, so they hugged and cried.

• • •

Distracted drivers are not any dumber, smarter or better able to focus than anyone else. One study found that Harvard students noticed unexpected things no better than people who weren't in college. Professional adults crash. So do teenagers and old people. People with money and people without.

In 2008, a California train engineer ran a red signal while texting, colliding with a freight train and killing 25. In 2009, two pilots distracted by laptops missed their destination by 100 miles. In 2010, a truck driven by a Kentucky driver on his phone crossed the median and collided with a van, killing 11.

It sounds ludicrous to say those people could have been bored. But it's possible, even likely.

When people do a routine task like driving, the brain slips into autopilot. It's why you can drive to work and not remember how you got there. Why you can read a page of a book and not retain it. It's also why your fingers wander to the phone.

"Psychologically, you need to maintain some level of complexity," said Chanyoung Lee, a traffic expert at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "I always had a manual shift. By the time I got my first automatic shift, I was so bored. People think they have extreme capacity. They do it because they think they can do it. They are doing it because they need to do it. People with kids consider themselves to be more responsible. They are talking on the phone to take care of something. And so many professionals, they talk on the phone because they don't want to waste any time.

"Unless we can figure out how we can fulfill the needs of these people, this thing will never go away."

• • •

The news conference was about to start. Steve and Agnes forged through the Capitol building, grasping Allie's senior photo. Steve snapped pictures of the Capitol on his phone. Clusters of doctors and cops milled outside the House chambers.

"Are they all here for us?" Agnes said.

The couple stood at a podium and the doctors and cops filed behind them. Politicians talked about the law. Surgeons talked about the emergency room. Then Steve spoke. The family moved to Spring Hill from New York in 1994 looking for a quieter life, he said. What they got was this. He passed around the photo of Alyssa's cellphone on the back dash.

Agnes was next. She studied the line of reporters. She hoped they wouldn't write herite her off as just a sad and angry mom.

"We stand before you as parents, perhaps grieving parents. But we don't need anyone in our government to label us as just grieving parents. We know we are. We will grieve forever. … We need to have some kind of law. We need to protect everyone, not just our children. We need to protect all of us. It's not just children doing this. It's adults doing this. This has become a legal weapon.

"I'm not a politician. I don't know how things work up here. I'm here as an ordinary person saying, whoever it is that's holding it up, let it go. We need this. We need this now. Please."

Steve and Agnes walked together through the Capitol. They sat in mahogany waiting rooms and peered into cubicles with baby-faced interns and prim receptionists. They were given a brief meeting with the House speaker's policy adviser.

They threw their shoulders back and went in. They came out five minutes later slumped. Agnes kicked the ground. Unless someone in power had a major change of philosophy, the bill was dead this year.

They walked past portraits of Florida's most powerful people, into Gov. Rick Scott's lobby, where an assistant told them maybe, maybe in an hour. So they waited, thumbing through tourism magazines. But it was not going to happen. Not today.

They left, got in the Silverado and drove back down U.S. 19 to Spring Hill, past deer darting from behind trees and past blinking yellow caution lights, peering out the windows to count the number of heads tilted down, the number of screens casting a glow on steering wheels.

Reach Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.

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