Deterring the distracted driver

March 02, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

Tracy Wheeler had never asked her husband the question before, but on the morning of June 16, a Saturday, she asked him what he'd be doing during his overtime shift with the Howard County Police Department that day.

"Step-outs," Scott Wheeler said, and she cringed. She didn't like step-outs. They require an officer to step into the highway and wave over speeding cars so the drivers can be ticketed.

She told him to crawl back in bed with her instead. "They'll never miss you at work," she told her husband of just 10 months, but they both knew she wasn't serious.

Scott Wheeler had always told his elder brother, Michael, who works for Northrop Grumman in Virginia, that Michael might be the book-smart one, but he was the really smart one. Scott and his bride had moved just a mile away from his mother, Janet, who was a heck of a cook.

He called her that morning and asked if his request for her crab soup had been granted. "I told him I'd have containers of soup waiting for him when he got off work," she said.

Tracy Wheeler knew it was bad when the Howard County police car sent to pick her up about 3 p.m. reached speeds she was sure were over 90 mph.

Janet Wheeler said she knew it was bad when they told her and her husband, Fred, to go to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. She really knew it was bad when Howard County police met their car and swept them inside the hospital without so much as letting them shut off the ignition.

Cpl. Scott Wheeler, 31 and a six-year, much decorated veteran of the police force, lived for two days after being struck by a speeding car on Route 32 that Saturday in June 2007. His was the first death in the line of duty in the county in 46 years.

His organs saved the lives of at least three people. His official funeral dwarfed anything his family could have imagined, and the procession to the cemetery was 8 miles long.

Posthumous awards and pictures of Scott in uniform are everywhere in his parents' Millersville home.

The Wheeler family is convinced the 25-year-old Columbia woman who was speeding when she struck Scott was also on her cell phone at the time. It is possible, they think, that she had been text messaging as well.

Phone records show she was on the phone just one minute before the police clock recorded the collision with Scott, but those clocks aren't synchronized, so nothing could be proved. But it probably wouldn't have mattered. A Howard County grand jury deliberated for three hours before concluding that there was no law under which they could charge the driver with manslaughter.

Stephanie Latoya Grissom of Columbia was issued two tickets and fined $310 for speeding and negligent driving.

"I don't understand how a man can get 90 days in jail for not cleaning up his yard," Tracy said, "and you can kill someone with your car, and all you get is a ticket and fines."

It isn't illegal in Maryland to talk on a cell phone while driving. It isn't manslaughter when you kill someone while doing so. The Wheelers think it ought to be.

So does Maryland Sen. Mike Lenett, the Montgomery County Democrat who has proposed legislation that would make it illegal to talk or text on a cell phone while driving.

He had one of his twin sons in his arms and the other by the hand and was about to cross a one-way street when a woman on a cell phone sped around the corner and went the wrong way down the street.

"I grabbed my son and pulled him back. She never even saw us."

Legislators have tried for a decade to pass some kind of distracted-driving law, but the concept was too hard to define for any bill to gain much traction. Lenett's bill focuses on the use of hand-held devices and text messaging, and it is the only proposal to prohibit both, he said.

For years, cell phone companies lined up against such prohibitions, but they have retreated this year.

"They know they are on the wrong side of this issue," Lenett said.

Some lawmakers have objected that this represents too much intrusion by government. "We are only fighting legislators at this point," Lenett said. The bill has the support of the Maryland State Police and the highway safety division of the Maryland Department of Transportation.

If the legislature can pass a ban on talking and texting while driving, Lenett said, Gov. Martin O'Malley has assured him he will sign it.

"The governor gets it," Lenett said. "I know there are no statistics to record the real danger here, but I don't need a study to tell me that I could have lost my son. I believe we all know, deep down inside, that we are not safe on the road when drivers have one hand on a cell phone and the other on the wheel."

Tracy and Scott had planned to view the video of their wedding on a Hawaiian beach for the first time on their first anniversary. Two months to the day after Scott was hit, Tracy watched it without him.

"I thought we had our whole lives," she said while sitting in the kitchen of her in-laws' home. She still lives in the house she and Scott purchased less than a mile away.

"I keep thinking he will walk in the door," said his mother, Janet, who rarely cooks anymore. "I keep thinking he will walk in the door and ask me what I made for him to eat."

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