Students urged to not be distracted drivers

NEW MANCHESTER-In the middle of Tuesday’s program about distracted driving, plaintiff’s attorney Eric Chaffin admitted to a group of Oak Glen High School students that he has texted while driving.

It’s not something he’s proud of.

“I’ve seen a lot of people who have been injured in accidents. Despite all that, I have been a distracted driver. It’s still a challenge for me,” Chaffin said.

A 1989 graduate of Oak Glen, Chaffin returned to his alma mater on Tuesday to give the “End Distracted Driving” presentation with U.S. Ski Team member and Paralympian Stephani Victor.

Chaffin recited the obligatory statistics-3,300 people died in 2012 as a result of distracted driving in the United States-and reviewed the familiar tips-pull off the road to check on a text-but it was his personal observations that seemed to make the biggest impression on the students.

“As a parent,” he said, “the single most powerful thing to keep me from distracted driving is to have one of my children say, ‘Hey, dad, don’t do that.’ “

Chaffin’s presentation was developed by fellow trial lawyer Joel Feldman, whose 21-year-old daughter, Casey, was killed in 2009 by a distracted driver. Casey Feldman was walking in a crosswalk to her daytime job in Ocean City, N.J.

Chaffin said such accidents, although “100 percent preventable,” are all too common because people think they can text and drive and not suffer any consequences.

“It’s not just a teen problem. I’ve seen New York City police officers texting and driving,” said Chaffin, whose Chaffin Luhana law firm has offices in Weirton, Pittsburgh and New York, N.Y.

Chaffin defined distracted driving as driving while engaged in any activity that could divert a person’s attention from the primary task of driving. Eating while driving, putting on makeup, checking the GPS, making a phone call, texting, looking at oneself in the mirror, changing CDs-are all things that can lead to distracted driving, he said.

In the amount of time it takes to text someone-four to five seconds-a car going 50 mph will travel 300 feet-the length of a football field, he said. Chaffin had the students close their eyes for five seconds and simultaneously imagine driving for that length of time.

People who say, “I’m a good driver,” or, “I can multi-task,” or, “It’s just a few seconds,” or, “Nothing bad will happen,” are only fooling themselves, he said. “The reality is: Bad things do happen,” he said.

As evidence, Chaffin played videos about a 17-year-old girl who veered off the road while checking her GPS and killed a 61-year-old man, and about a 64-year-old pedestrian who was killed by a woman who was looking down to get something out of her purse.

Chaffin said Stephani Victor’s story is another cautionary tale. Victor lost both of her legs in 1995 when a 17-year-old distracted driver crushed her against the back of her boyfriend’s car.

A spokeswoman for the Chaffin Luhana Foundation, Victor went on to become a Paralympic downhill skier and to win five medals in three Paralympic Winter Games. She won the gold in the slalom event in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

Victor, a native of Sewickley, Pa., told the students she still fantasizes about running and dancing and standing up in the shower. “It’s not fun to live with the consequences of those actions, especially when we can prevent them,” she said.

Victor asked the students about their aspirations, to which one student said he wanted to become a video game designer, one a U.S. Marine, and one a diesel mechanic.

“I had dreams too,” she said. “I was simply standing there. Those dreams changed dramatically in that moment.”