Jim Dey | Ignoring cellphone safety can take tragic toll

Jim Dey | Ignoring cellphone safety can take tragic toll

Friday's News-Gazette contained a horrifying story that not enough people read.

If they had read this irredeemably sad tale of lives shattered, they should have reached two obvious conclusions:

— There, but for the grace of God, go I.

— Cellphones and driving do not mix.

The story, written by courts reporter Mary Schenk, concerned a sentencing hearing of a Mattoon man who pleaded guilty to a distracted-driving charge. It was the result of a June 8 car crash that left a 10-year-old girl dead and her sister and grandmother seriously injured.

They were not the only casualties of this easily avoidable tragedy.

The child's father, Matt Conner of Camargo, reports that he and his wife both suffer from anxiety and depression as a consequence of the devastation wreaked upon them.

And, of course, there is the defendant, 38-year-old family man Steven Kruse. How can anyone stand to live with the blood that is on his hands?

Unfortunately, thousands, maybe even millions of people thoughtlessly do every day what Kruse did — glance at or use their cellphones while behind the wheel.

The facts indicate in this case that Kruse was driving south on I-57, near I-74, when he took his eyes off the road to answer his phone. Just what was so important as to risk life and limb?

He collided with the back of the Conners' family car, which was stopped in traffic at a construction zone.

What took seconds to play out has caused a loss of life and a lifetime of heartache, torment, pain and regret.

There's no point in berating Kruse as a terrible person because his ill-advised conduct had a terrible result. Except for being unluckier than most motorists who talk on their cellphones, even text on them, he's no different than other serial violators.

Every day, countless people engage in the same kind of conduct that led to this tragedy, and they appear to be oblivious to the risks — to themselves, to others — they are running.

No wonder, Mr. Conner said, that he feels anger every time he sees a passing motorist with a cellphone attached to his or her ear, driving and talking, playing with fire every inch of the way.

Although one would hardly know it, Illinois has laws on the books that ban cellphone use while driving. But they are mostly ignored by the driving public.

Why?

Do motorists think they are immune to the potential consequences of their conduct? Are they unaware that there are potential negative consequences to their conduct? Or is society's slavish devotion to cellphones so strong that it has created a new, menacing normal?

If there's to be a solution to this public safety menace, it's going to have to come from an education campaign that emphasizes personal responsibility, enlightened self-interest and the potentially catastrophic consequences of motorists not paying attention when behind the wheel.

So far, law enforcement's efforts to minimize cellphone use while driving have been the equivalent of pouring water on a duck's back. People don't obey this law because they have no respect for it. They may fear getting a ticket for violating it, but that just leads to a game of cat-and-mouse with law enforcement.

For reasons that defy comprehension, they clearly do not fear the potentially serious consequences, like what occurred in this case, of violating the laws of common sense until it's too late.

Cellphones are mind-boggling technological tools that offer great convenience. But portions of society have developed almost a sick obsession with them.

Have readers ever been in a restaurant, bar or popular gathering place where groups of people who have gone out together sit around a table, each staring at or repeatedly checking their phones?

Why? Does the world really change every five minutes?

And just what is so important about answering another in an endless series of phone calls when people are behind the wheel?

Whatever answers cellphone users have to those questions will never trump the fact that lives can change forever in split seconds, the time necessary to take one's eyes off the road and put them on a ringing cellphone.

That's the lesson here. It's just too bad people will continue to ignore it and episodic events of carnage on our roads and highways will follow.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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