Mother and advocate Laurel Zimmerman, left, Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli, center, and former District 41 state Rep. Martin Howrylak present a hands-free legislation bill to the Michigan Legislature in 2016.

Mother and advocate Laurel Zimmerman, left, Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli, center, and former District 41 state Rep. Martin Howrylak present a hands-free legislation bill to the Michigan Legislature in 2016.

Photo provided by Transportation Improvement Association


TIA, victim’s families advocate for hands-free Senate legislation

‘Everyone has a cellphone in their vehicle, and everybody is pretty much using it’

By: Jonathan Shead | Metro | Published May 28, 2021

 Parents Jim and Diane Freybler, and Laurel Zimmerman, present their proposal for hands-free driving legislation alongside Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli and state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, at the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

Parents Jim and Diane Freybler, and Laurel Zimmerman, present their proposal for hands-free driving legislation alongside Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli and state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, at the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

Photo provided by Transportation Improvement Association

METRO DETROIT — As a mother, everything changed for Laurel Zimmerman on Dec. 28, 2010, the day her 16-year-old daughter Ally Zimmerman was fatally injured in a crash involving a distracted driver.

Jim Freybler’s life changed in much the same way in 2014, after he lost his son Jacob to a texting and driving accident. Freybler joined the hands-free campaign in 2017.

Zimmerman and Freybler aren’t alone, however. Since Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli brought forth new language and new legislation surrounding hands-free driving laws to the Michigan Senate in 2016, 292 other people have been killed and 31,233 others have been injured as a result of 81,886 crashes involving distracted driving.

Santilli believes those numbers may be underreported. Former District 41 state Rep. Martin Howrylak announced his support and sponsorship of the first hands-free bill Sept. 6, 2016.

Santilli, alongside Zimmerman and Freybler, have worked for the past four years to try to improve Michigan’s current distracted driving laws, which primarily prohibit texting while driving, but leave legal gray areas when drivers are caught doing something else.

This year, they’re back on the Senate floor advocating for Senate Bill 409, which they believe will improve the safety of Michigan’s roadways. The bill is currently sponsored and was introduced by state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly.

“It’s devastating, because these are not numbers. These are real people who were taken away from their loved ones, whose family members and friends are now suffering because that individual has either been killed or seriously injured as a result of a completely preventable behavior,” Santilli said. “As drivers, we all have a responsibility to make good decisions to not only protect our life, but the lives of the innocent people traveling around us. In my opinion, this is just commonsense legislation.”

As the first to join alongside Santilli, Zimmerman said seeing the Senate bill enacted would mean the world. “We’ve been doing this since the very beginning, even when no one wanted to listen to us,” Zimmerman said. “It would mean a whole lot for that purpose, that she came into this world to save the life of other people, and I believe this bill will help other people, so they don’t have to experience the pain and devastating loss of somebody that they love.”

Despite an uphill battle the past four years, and several iterations of the legislation, Santilli said he’s optimistic about the outcome this time.

“Right now, there’s 26 states in the nation that are hands-free. The one thing we need to remember, this is about public safety. This is about saving lives and preventing injuries, and people should be keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel when operating a motor vehicle.”

 

An enforcement gray area
Santilli said a main reason he joined forces with Zimmerman, law enforcement officials and business owners to combat distracted driving was because the current texting and driving laws are too vague. The current law leaves gray areas that make it harder to enforce, and Michigan State Police District Public Information Officer 1st Lt. Michael Shaw agreed.

“Michigan current texting and driving law is pretty tough to enforce. The law basically says the person can only be banned from texting itself. When law enforcement kind of sees someone doing something on a phone, and you can’t actually record or catch them actually texting, most judges won’t do anything as far as enforcement goes,” he explained. “That kind of puts the troopers and other officers at more of a careless driving (charge) or things like that, instead of the actual texting laws. It does make it pretty difficult.”

The Michigan State Police don’t take an official position on SB 409, especially given the changing nature of the bill before it would potentially pass and be enacted, but Shaw said MSP troopers are aware distracted driving is an issue and “anything that helps us get people’s eyes and thoughts back on the road is good.”

He said enforcement would not be an issue for the MSP. “As soon as it came into effect, that’s when we would start being able to enforce it. It kind of depends on the Legislature, how the bill is passed and when it would actually take effect from the time that it’s signed,” he said. “Like anything else, there’s discretion involved with it as well. Troopers will probably give more warnings out at the very beginning as the law takes effect, and as more people learn about it, then your enforcement continues.”

Shaw added that self-enforcement is always the best policy. “Distracted driving, like drinking and driving, could be something that is 100% eliminated if people just stopped doing it.”

Santilli believes enforcement will be easier for law enforcement under the proposed legislation.

“We’re not saying you can’t use the device; we’re just saying you shouldn’t have it in your hand, and you need to keep your eyes on the road,” he said. “Driving is not a right, it’s a privilege, and it’s a privilege that, obviously, if you don’t follow the law, it’s going to be taken away. This is all about safety. This is about saving lives and preventing injuries. We know this is a problem.”

 

An increasing issue
Despite a multipronged approach of public education, awareness campaigns and enforcement, the number of distracted driving incidents is going up in America, rather than down.

“Sadly, the occurrence and rate of distracted driving we’re seeing is going up and not down. It’s a little discouraging, with all the education, public relations and campaigns that law firms, insurance companies (and) even cellphone carriers are doing, that the incident rate of distracted driving and distracted driving-related crashes seems to be going up,” Michigan Auto Law Attorney Brandon Hewitt said, adding that fatal crashes involving cellphones increased 88% between 2016 and 2019.

Distracted driving goes deeper than just the physical distraction of holding a handheld device and taking your eyes off the road, Hewitt explained. There’s also the cognitive aspects, in which a driver is mentally engaged in something else, giving them less time to react to a potential collision.

U.S. Department of Transportation data shows that a driver who is texting is 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, and a driver using a handheld device is four times more likely to get into a crash bad enough to cause serious injury. On average, distracted drivers look away for 4.6 seconds, which equates to driving the length of a football field at 55 mph while blindfolded, Santilli said.

Freybler believes distracted driving is an epidemic in today’s society. “Everyone has a cellphone in their vehicle, and everybody is pretty much using it,” he said. “It’s the worst distraction out there, and Senate Bill 409 is the only one that will take the phone completely out of the hands of the person.”

Shaw said that at some point, public education may not be enough and enforcement action is needed. “You can use education only for so long. You can only do so many things without the enforcement component, because some people are going to continue driving distracted until they are stopped by an officer.”

A way to save lives

As Santilli, Zimmerman and Freybler continue to advocate for stronger distracted driving laws in Michigan, whether the new legislation would in fact be safer is still not fully known, Hewitt said, but that shouldn’t stop the state from trying, he added.

“I think we should find out. We know that the incident rate is going up and not down by doing nothing. If this measure helps bring it down, perhaps it’s smart to try. If it doesn’t help, then maybe go back to the drawing board with the legislation,” he said.

Freybler questioned what it was going to take for the state’s senators to read and pass the legislation.

“You could look for a bunch of reasons to say no, but I just want to protect other people,” Zimmerman added. “Why now? Because today somewhere, someone is going to lose a person that they love, or somebody is going to be severely handicapped. … Our whole intention has always been ‘no more.’ If we can just save somebody the agonizing pain. Now is as important as any other day. Let’s just do it, so we don’t have to have this conversation again with somebody else.”

For more information, visit handsfreemichigan.com.