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Sen Hwang Partners With Cops, AAA On Distracted Driving Prevention



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For Newtown Police Captain Chris Vanghele, his officers and supervisors, one of the worst duties is knocking on someone’s door and informing them a loved one is never coming home because they’ve been killed in a traffic collision.

Linda Strickland of Mourning Parents ACT was one of those parents. She lost her 16-year-old son in a crash in 2006 — in a vehicle being driven by his 19-year-old brother.

Since then, she has participated with the nonprofit group for families of teenagers killed in car crashes, speaking to students and groups like the one that gathered in the Alexandria Room at Edmond Town Hall on April 25 for a forum on distracted driving. The local event was one of two hosted in State Senator Tony Hwang’s 28th District at the tail end of “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.”

Sen Hwang dedicated himself to promoting the escalating dangers of distracted driving throughout April, making his first appearance alongside Fairfield Police and AAA representatives, along with Newtown resident and traffic safety scientist Neil Chaudhary.

Dr Chaudhary’s Preusser Research Group has also been engaged in a federally funded distracted driving pilot study being conducted throughout the spring in Newtown and Bethel, which he hopes will expand statewide in the future.

During his Newtown forum, where Sen Hwang was joined by Newtown Police Chief James Viadero, Capt Christopher Vanghele, and Sgt Jeff Silver, AAA spokesperson Fran Mayko, Darien High School student Rhea Bhat, Ms Strickland, and Dr Chaudhary, he reminded the several dozen attendees that distracted driving has been on the rise as cellular phones and motor vehicle technology continues to advance, and it has been accompanied by an increase in preventable accidents and deaths.

“Most of us are guilty of distracted driving because we naively think nothing dangerous will happen to us. Unfortunately, distracted driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving,” said Sen Hwang, reiterating remarks from his Fairfield press conference earlier in April.

“When you are not paying full attention to the road in front of you, there is a highly increased chance that you will have an accident as a result of either your own actions or the actions by another you are unable to avoid,” he said. “We need to take this just as seriously as drunk and buzzed driving because they can lead to the same dangerous result.”

“Preusser Research Group has done extensive research in distracted driving for the Connecticut Highway Safety Office, the Highway Safety Offices in several other states, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Insurance Institute for Highway,” said Dr Chaudhary in the advance. “This research has led us to realize the tenacity of the problem. Rates of distracted driving are stable or getting worse despite law enforcement efforts, strong laws, and social norming programs. Our research also shows that this is not just a young driver problem, but an all driver problem.”

‘We Can Save Lives’

Ms Mayko, the AAA spokesperson said most drivers believe that if their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel, then they’re focused on the drive.

“But research proves there are hidden dangers when using a cell phone or in-vehicle technology,” she said. “Mental distractions last longer than you think and can cause a dangerous crash. We as a society have created a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ culture on our roadways. Drivers understand the risk, they just don’t think they are the problem. With more than 3,400 people killed in distracted driving crashes each year, it’s time for drivers to be accountable. We can save lives.”

In his opening remarks at the forum, Chief Viadero said, “Distracted driving is a priority for us every day in law enforcement.”

“There’s nothing more frustrating as a police chief that I see as I’m driving around is everybody who is paying more attention to what’s going on [on the cell phone] in their lap and not watching the road,” he said. “You don’t need a police officer pulling you over and giving you a ticket to remind you that your life is in peril or somebody else’s life.”

Capt Vanghele said the 600 to 700 traffic collisions in Newtown every year is “way too many.” But he related that when he came onto the local force in the early-1990s, there were not a lot of cell phones being used in cars.

“But there was distracted driving,” he said. “Distracted driving isn’t just cell phones; people are worried about what’s going on in the back seat, they’re worried about their radio, they’re thinking about what’s going to happen at work — that causes accidents.

“To watch a family disintegrate in seconds right in front of you when you tell them their 17-year-old son isn’t coming home because he was killed in a traffic accident because somebody’s mind was not on their driving,” he said, “that’s why we are out there.”

According to Sergeant Jeff Silver, a traffic and vehicle specialist, his ultimate goal is to see voluntary compliance with distracted driving laws. “We’re not out there with a goal of issuing tickets, we just want people to abide by the safety rules.”

Ms Strickland said she was the unfortunate recipient of the type of visit that Capt Vanghele talked about.

“There’s too many of us now, in my book,” she said. “Not only did my son, Alex, die — but another young man in the car died. My oldest son was the only one who survived.”

‘Lucky To Survive’

Ms Bhat, a freshman, shared her distracted driving experience, telling the audience she was hit by a pick-up truck near her home in Darien when she was 12.

“I was trying to get off the bus and cross the road when I was pushed to the ground by a huge force,” she said. “A driver who was distracted by his phone didn’t notice the stopped bus or me. He was looking at his phone to see who was calling and the mirror from the truck smashed into my arm. Many people told me I was lucky to survive.”

Thankfully, Ms Bhat said she was not seriously injured, physically, but the trauma caused her to be afraid of trying to cross any type of roadway — even a small intersection or secluded street.

Dr Chaudhary presented some data he and his organization had gathered about distracted driving, including the increased dangers of distractions from in-vehicle information and entertainment systems.

“My assumption as somebody who does [traffic safety] for a living was that automobile manufacturers would not put something like this in my car if it wasn’t safe,” he said. “But the first time I tried to drive and do some stuff on [the in-vehicle control panel], I discovered they are giving you what you want, but not necessarily what is safe.”

During the audience participation portion of the evening, Richard Paukner of Easton pointed out that forcing drivers who are ticketed for distracted driving to attend a similar education seminar would likely have greater impact than just issuing them a fine.

Sen Hwang admitted that he was “one of those people who has driven distracted.” The lawmaker said these days, he takes care of important messages, calls, texts, and setting up his vehicle radio before he hits the road.

He said the more he learns about the extent distracted driving is affecting residents and traffic safety, “it has been liberating and a comfort to know that I’m not distracted when I’m driving.”

State Senator Tony Hwang, far left, was joined by traffic safety advocates including Newtown resident and traffic safety scientist Neil Chaudhary, Newtown Police Sgt Jeff Silver, Capt Christopher Vanghele, Linda Strickland of Mourning Parents ACT, Fran Mayko of AAA, Darien High School student Rhea Bhat, and Newtown Police Chief James Viadero to call attention to this growing issue at an April 25 forum at Edmond Town Hall. (Bee Photo, Voket)

Chief James Viadero is pictured at the podium during the recent Distracted Driving forum offering opening remarks while Sen Tony Hwang and Dr Neil Chaudhary look on. (Bee Photo, Voket)

At a news conference in April at the Fairfield Police Department to highlight Distracted Driving Month, AAA joined Sen Hwang, Fairfield police, and other traffic safety advocates, including Newtown resident and traffic safety scientist Neil Chaudhary, far left, to call attention to this growing issue and to promote two forums on the subject, including an April 25 event at Edmond Town Hall, where he was joined by AAA representatives, law enforcement, and other traffic safety advocates. (Photo courtesy Sen Tony Hwang)

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