Sam Howell and his mother, Maureen, give details of Sam’s accident, caused by reaching for a ringing cellphone while driving.

Sam Howell and his mother, Maureen, give details of Sam’s accident, caused by reaching for a ringing cellphone while driving.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

Stash your phone while driving

By: Linda Shepard | Rochester Post | Published April 10, 2018

ROCHESTER HILLS — While driving, Sam Howell reached for his ringing cellphone, which had fallen to the car floor.

He spent the next three months of his life in a coma and the next decade in recovery.

“I went airborne 10 feet in the air,” Howell said. “I hit a tree. My car flipped and crushed my head.”

Howell and his parents, Jim and Maureen Howell, spoke at an April 4 Michigan State Police distracted driving awareness event at Oakland University. The Saginaw-area family detailed Sam’s extensive recovery after his 2005 accident.  

“Sam’s injuries were massive,” Maureen Howell said. “He very severely damaged his brain.”

Life changed in an instant for the Eagle Scout and multiple science fair winner, who was 19 at the time of the crash and had been slated to enter college on an $80,000 scholarship.

“This is an example of someone who had everything going for him,” Jim Howell said.

“He didn’t talk or eat food by mouth for two years,” Maureen Howell said.

Today, Sam Howell is back in school at the age of 31 after a long journey of rehabilitation.

According to the Michigan State Police, 12,788 traffic crashes involved distracted driving in 2016 — resulting in 43 deaths and 5,103 injuries in the state. Cellphones were involved in 1,912 of those crashes, causing nine deaths and 840 injuries.

In 2016, 3,450 people were killed nationwide in traffic crashes involving distracted driving. Driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near-crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month in Michigan, and the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning supports overtime traffic enforcement targeting distracted driving during April.    

Michigan law prohibits a driver from reading or manually typing or sending a text message while driving — which is defined as operating a moving motor vehicle on a street or highway. The fine for a first offense is $100, and subsequent offenses can result in fines of up to $240.

“Fines are the least of your problem,” said Kendall Wingrove, a Michigan OHSP section chief.  “Five seconds of distraction can take you the length of a football field. Never check your phone while operating a vehicle.”

“We have to stop being distracted by our phones,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. “Pedestrian accidents have spiked because (when walking), people have their heads down and are looking at their phones.”

In addition to texting, distracted driving can include eating and drinking, using a GPS unit, attending to children, grooming, reading a map, talking, and changing the radio station. Three main types of distraction include visually taking your eyes off the road, manually taking your hands off the wheel and cognitively taking your mind off the task of driving.

“This is a very serious topic,” Bouchard said about distracted driving. “You are basically piloting a 2,800-pound deadly weapon.

“Things can happen fast,” he said. “Nothing you do on your phone is worth your life or someone else’s.”