Dangers of Distracted Driving
Parents on crusade to save lives after son’s tragic accident
By Anne Cumming Rice
This will only take a second, you tell yourself as you receive a new text message. You do your best to keep the steering wheel of the car straight while you look down at your phone and start typing a quick response.
It took only a second for 22-year-old Alex Heit of Boulder to start typing a response to a text message, lose control of his car and ultimately lose his life last spring.
“ ‘It’ll just take a second … I gotta answer this.’ No one even thinks of the danger to themselves, their friends, and their futures,” write Steve and Sharon Heit, Alex’s parents, in an interview via e-mail. “Unfortunately, as in this tragedy, everything can change in seconds. Prior to his accident, Alex had a perfect driving record and wasn’t speeding at the time.”
The UNC junior died April 3 in a single vehicle roll-over accident in Greeley. According to Greeley Police, Heit had been traveling eastbound on O Street from 35th Avenue, on a turn with a very narrow, dirt shoulder and a steep drop. Witnesses said he seemed to have his head down, and began drifting into the oncoming lane of traffic. A westbound vehicle slowed and moved over just before Heit looked up. As he did, he jerked the steering wheel hard, over-correcting, resulting in his leaving the south side of the roadway, rolling and flipping the vehicle.
A few days after the accident, his parents released an image of Alex’s cellphone, showing the last text message that Alex had written but had not sent.
“The photo is a powerful, disturbing image,” his parents say. “It has been sent and resent around the world, as people use it to warn others of the terrible danger of texting and driving.”
Decades ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving made inebriated driving socially unacceptable, but there is no similarly powerful movement aimed at distracted drivers. And the distractions inside cars are only increasing.
“It can be changing the radio station, dealing with kids in the back seat,” says Sgt. Susan West, public information officer for the Greeley Police Department. “And these days, the controls in cars are becoming more complicated. Driving is a divided attention skill. But when you are paying attention to everything but driving, it’s a dangerous situation.”
Trooper Josh Lewis, public information officer for the Colorado State Patrol, says calls reporting distracted driving are increasing to the state patrol (dial *CSP). Ironically, a distracted driver exhibits the same erratic driving behavior that a drunken driver does. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that distraction from phone use while driving — whether hand-held or hands-free — slows a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent, or being legally drunk.
“You see the weaving, the sudden braking and speeding up or slowing down,” Lewis says. “Texting and driving is a threefold danger. It takes your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel and your mind off driving.”
For a first offense, distracted driving in Colorado carries a $57 fine and one point on a driver’s license. But law enforcement officials say broad change may come only with public service campaigns much like the ones about drunken driving.
“What you hear several times over sticks in your brain,” West says. “The education piece is huge.”
Steve and Sharon Heit agree.
“As with campaigns for seat belts or designated drivers, it will be a long process to educate people everywhere about how dangerous these new distracting technologies can be,” they say.
The image of Alex Heit’s last unsent text message has also had a big impact.
“People have written to us, saying they now leave their phones in the back seat to avoid the temptation to even glance at it when they’re driving,” his parents say. “We hope that that concept catches on. No call or text is so urgent that it cannot ‘take a back seat’ to safe driving.”
On Oct. 18, which would have been Alex’s 23rd birthday, a bur oak tree was planted near UNC’s Garden Theatre in honor of Alex. The tree was purchased, in part, with donations the family received from the UNC community after Alex’s death.
An avid snowboarder, hiker and video game master, Alex was shy and witty and loved the outdoors. He had been a junior park ranger for the city of Boulder, building trails and natural habitat in Boulder’s mountain parks. His decision to study audiology at UNC was in part inspired by his grandfather’s hearing loss. A Spanish minor, Alex was also considering doing an internship in Latin America.
Alex’s parents said they hope his story will save lives.
“We shared the tragic photo and information about Alex’s accident with the UNC community and the world in the hopes that the horror of our tragedy and the loss of a wonderful, promising young person will remind everyone how dangerous even a moment of distracted driving can be,” they say. “There are so many more promising young lives to be saved.” NV