Sheriff Michael Bouchard speaks during a press conference April 26 announcing new legislation that seeks to curb distracted driving. Advocates and families impacted by distracted driving fatalities joined him.

Sheriff Michael Bouchard speaks during a press conference April 26 announcing new legislation that seeks to curb distracted driving. Advocates and families impacted by distracted driving fatalities joined him.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

Legislators try again to fully ban texting while driving

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published April 29, 2019


OAKLAND COUNTY — During a press conference at the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office headquarters April 26, Sheriff Michael Bouchard joined with state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, and Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli to discuss proposed legislation to cut down on distracted driving.

Johnson announced that she had recently introduced the bipartisan-supported Senate Bill 288, which would make Michigan the 19th state in the nation to outlaw texting and other distractions while driving, leaving hands-free devices as the only legal communication for drivers. Texting and other device manipulation that requires more than a single tap or swipe to a device on a windshield or dash mount would be banned. Handling devices and other distractions, like eating and grooming, wouldn’t be allowed by a driver in a vehicle unless the vehicle is pulled completely off the road.

“I actually first introduced hands-free legislation 18 years ago as a state representative. The need is even more important and more urgent (now),” Johnson said, noting that in 2017, 20,115 crashes and 72 fatalities were attributed to distracted drivers.

Bouchard said that he’s pulled over countless vehicles for distracted driving, even citing an example of a driver eating chicken nuggets behind the wheel, with a selection of three dipping sauces set up. While texting and driving is technically banned in the state, it’s been hard to enforce as a primary offense because it could be too hard for police to prove.

“Distracted driving is a holistic thing,” he said. “When (former) Gov. (Jennifer) Granholm pushed legislation on this, I told her it wouldn’t make any difference because it was so specific that it was unenforceable. Our folks can’t articulate that they were texting unless the driver admits they were or we get a subpoena that verifies at that precise second that they were texting.”

The urgency of such a law can’t be adequately expressed by politicians, though. So the group brought with them families who have lost a child to distracted drivers to tell their stories.

Grand Rapids father Jim Freybler recalled the night he waited at home for his 17-year-old son Jacob to return home and help him with some cleaning.

But instead of Jacob showing up at the door on June 18, 2014, it was local sheriff’s deputies with devastating news.

“He was going 60 miles an hour and hit an SUV head-on. He crossed the centerline. It was a matter of seconds,” Freybler said. “He was trapped in the car. His legs were cut off. He had head trauma. Everything broke. The car: totaled. And the one thing they find in his lap was a cellphone.”

Freybler, standing next to his wife, Diane Freybler, held up the old 3G iPhone that first responders found at the scene of the crash and noted that there wasn’t a scratch on it. It still works, in fact, and has Jacob’s last words in the text field: “I’m not feeling well. I’m not feeling well.”

With that, Freybler tossed the cellphone to the ground.

“That thing is indestructible. I’ve thrown it on the floor. I’ve thrown it everywhere. It won’t break,” he said. “These things don’t care if you live or die.”

Matt Penniman, of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, said it’s become difficult for bike riders to stay safe on the roads.

“When you look to make eye contact with a driver so you know they see you, and they won’t look up from their phone, they’re saying in that moment that they’re prioritizing that over your life,” he said.

Laurel Zimmerman, an emergency room nurse from Oakland Township, lost her 16-year-old daughter Ally to a distracted driver in 2011. A distracted 16-year-old driver with five young passengers T-boned the vehicle that Ally was riding in as a passenger at 32 Mile and Romeo Plank roads.

“Ally was talented. She was kind. She was giving. The best part of me I could see in her because she believed in all the goodness in this world and wanted to make a difference,” Zimmerman said of her daughter.

Santilli happens to be a family friend of the Zimmermans and said it was difficult to attend the teen’s funeral knowing she could have had so much life ahead of her.

“When operating a motor vehicle, we all have a personal responsibility to protect our life and the lives of the innocent people traveling around us at all times,” Santilli said.

If passed as currently written, Johnson’s bill would penalize distracted drivers with a fine of $125 for a first offense, one point on their license for a second violation and two points for each subsequent violation, in addition to citations and fines.