Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Families share tears at Tampa summit called against distracted driving

TAMPA — Two days after her 13-year-old daughter was killed in a car wreck, Elissa Schee sifted through the girl's belongings.

She discovered a notebook. Inside, her daughter, Margay, had scribbled dozens of phrases.

"No matter what happens, you'll get through."

"This is the only life you have."

"Live like today is the last."

As her voice trembled, Schee read from her daughter's notebook Tuesday during a summit on distracted driving, the first held in Florida.

Margay died in September 2008 after a truck driver talking on a cellphone slammed into her school bus in Ocala. Margay was trapped in the burning wreckage. Everyone else survived.

"The man who killed her received a three-year sentence," Schee said. "I received a life sentence."

More than 270 local, state and federal officials attended the summit at the Tampa Convention Center, where they discussed several issues including cellphone policies, traumatic injuries and teen education.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood attended and spoke to the crowd.

More than 30 states have passed distracted driving laws, LaHood said. But Florida has none.

"Florida needs to pass a distracted driving law," LaHood said. "We can make a difference. What it takes is really mobilizing people, educating people and having all of you persuade legislators."

Across the country, more than 3,000 people were killed and about 420,000 others were injured in crashes related to distracted driving in 2010, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

"You know how bad these are and you know how unsafe these are," LaHood said as he waved a cellphone in the air, adding that the challenge of passing distracted driving laws was similar to getting drivers to wear seat belts several years ago. "We are trying to change behavior."

A mangled metallic blue Chevrolet van sat outside the convention center.

The windshield was shattered. The front of the van was twisted metal. The driver's door was gone. The Chevy belonged to Alan Vasquez.

On Sept. 26, Vasquez, a bass guitar player known as "Buddha," was driving from Marianna to Alabama when he text-messaged a band member that he would soon be crossing the state line.

He texted from Florida, his stepdaughter Angela Clark said, because Alabama has a distracted driving law.

About 20 minutes away from Alabama, he crashed.

Vasquez died hours later.

"He'd just turned 49 years old," Clark said. "It's not just the youth. It's adults."

The summit also included a victim-impact panel, where people who lost a loved one in a distracted driving-related crash shared their stories.

Among them was Russell Hurd from Maryland.

In January 2008, he and his family were in Orlando to spend the holidays with his daughter, Heather, and her fiance.

On Jan. 3, they were going to Disney World to meet with a wedding planner.

Hurd arrived on time, but Heather was late.

A semitrailer truck driver who had been texting crashed into several cars, including hers.

As Hurd spoke, photographs of the wreckage were shown on a screen.

He pointed to a headline in a newspaper that said two people had died in the crash.

"One of those two was my daughter," he said. "Because of someone texting and driving, my wish of walking my daughter down the aisle will never happen."

Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727)893-8713, or [email protected]

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