My mom, who works as a religious education director, was locking up after a youth group at her parish not long ago when she heard a girl crying in the hallway. The girl had been texting with her friend Deanna, who was riding home with her boyfriend and two other friends after watching a college basketball game. Everything was normal. It had been a typical Saturday night.
Suddenly, though, the texts stopped.
Then she heard the news: A car had rear-ended her friends’ SUV on the freeway. New York State Police later said the SUV rolled multiple times and hit a tree, killing her friend.
I can’t stop thinking of this girl’s story, mostly because I understand what she’s going through. I was in a craft store, picking up things to make a scrapbook for my best friend Tovah’s wedding. My phone rang. It was Tovah’s mother, telling me that Tovah had been killed in a car accident. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk. I sank to the floor right in the middle of the store, sobbing.
I remembered that moment when I heard about the girl’s story. Two people died on that freeway that night: Deanna Rivers and Chris Stewart, high-school seniors with bright futures. They had been planning to go to college. They had just celebrated their anniversary with mozzarella sticks and ice cream. There would have been other basketball games, other anniversaries, other parties, celebrations, graduations, happiness, sadness and sunny days.
It makes me sad to think that’s all over now.
Tragedies like this hit home with me. When I get in my car, my mind isn’t always on the road. My mind wanders. I start thinking about something else entirely. Sometimes, I forget I’m not supposed to text while driving and sneak one in. Sometimes I end up late for work, and I start speeding, rationalizing my actions. “It can’t hurt,” I say. “I’ll do it just this once. Right?”
The driver of the vehicle that hit Chris Stewart’s SUV took a breathalyzer test. It showed he’d had alcohol in his system, but not enough to qualify for a charge of driving while intoxicated. Police are investigating what happened that night.
We may never know. The driver could have been distracted, was texting, or tired.
Reading about Chris and Deanna reminded me that getting behind the wheel of a car is more than just a rite of passage. It’s a huge responsibility. It’s a responsibility that kicks in every time you put the keys in the ignition. You don’t have to pass the driving test once. You have to pass the driving test each time you get in a car, for your sake and for the sake of others on the road.
Driving while drunk kills. Driving while exhausted kills. Texting while driving kills. Driving while distracted kills.
I know it’s hard to remember this when you’re a teenager, especially when you’ve first felt the freedom that a learning permit promises.
But the next time you get behind the wheel of a car, remember Chris and Deanna. Put away the phone. Texts and calls can wait. Give the keys to someone else if you’re overly tired, or if you’ve had just a swallow of alcohol. Don’t speed. Ever. If your friends are distracting you while you’re driving, tell them to stop or pull over until they shut up.
I don’t want anyone else to have to get that phone call.