Looking back at the evening of March 29, 2013, Shelby Pitts says she was vaguely aware of the dangers of distracted driving, but like most teens, she thought texting behind the wheel was something she could handle – that something bad would never happen to her.
And then in an instant, she looked up from her phone and saw the back end of a slow-moving tractor-trailer. “Oh crap. This is it,” she remembers thinking. Then everything else was a blur.
Shelby, then 17 years old, was driving on Highway 80 from Selma to Montgomery – a route that she drove nearly every day. The born-and-raised Lowndesboro, Alabama teen was going to see a friend in Montgomery when a simple, unimportant text message nearly took her life.
No Chance to React
She was driving her 2005 Chevy Tahoe with the cruise control set at 75 mph when she heard her phone beep with an incoming text. “I was behind two other cars in the left lane when we topped a slight hill. I checked my message and when I looked up from my phone I saw the truck. The two cars in front of me swerved out of the way.”
But the distraction of the text message robbed Shelby of any opportunity to take evasive action. Her Tahoe slammed full speed into the back of the tractor-trailer that had just turned around on the highway and was going about 5 mph to get back up to speed. Shelby never had a chance to brake.
Moments later, a nurse who had just started working with Shelby’s sister at a Montgomery hospital passed the truck and noticed something unusual. The truck driver hadn’t felt the impact of the collision and continued to drive, dragging Shelby’s mangled SUV along with it.
The sun had just set, and in the darkness the nurse initially figured Shelby’s crushed vehicle was a part of the tractor-trailer. But as she passed the truck, she heard a girl screaming. Realizing now what had happened, she got the truck driver to stop and rushed to assist Shelby.
Shelby’s parents and her sister and brother-in-law all arrived at the crash scene as rescuers worked to free her. Shelby’s sister, a nurse, insisted that paramedics give Shelby pain medication. Her mother knelt on the ground and prayed.
Fire departments from three cities arrived at the scene. Shelby’s Tahoe was so badly crushed that rescuers had to try getting her out of the vehicle in multiple ways. They finally freed her by cutting through the back of the SUV and removing the seats until they could pull her out.
Shelby was airlifted to Baptist South Hospital in Montgomery, where she was whisked into surgery for multiple crash injuries that included a broken femur, a shattered leg, a crushed ankle, internal injuries, and extensive nerve damage.
The long and painful recovery involved months of multiple therapies to recover sensation in her legs, followed by several months of physical therapy to condition her legs to walk again.
Doctors told Shelby that she was spared head injuries and other potentially fatal trauma because she was buckled in at the time.
“When I was pulling out the driveway that day, my dad was parked behind me so I asked him to move. After he moved, he walked by my car to say goodbye. But then he saw I was about to drive off without my seatbelt. He said, ‘what are you doing? Buckle up!’”
Later her dad told Shelby that it happened for a reason. “God had me park behind you for a reason so that I could remind you to buckle up.”
“It Can’t Happen to Me”
While Shelby understood the dangers of driving without buckling up, she said the dangers of distracted driving seemed much less probable.
When asked if she had seen commercials, public service announcements, or other warnings about the deadliness of distracted driving, Shelby said she had.
“But I wasn’t thinking of that. I was a teenager and young people think ‘this can’t happen to me.’ That’s what I thought.”
While permanent disability or loss of life may seem inconceivable to many young people, considering the devastation of such outcomes on your family and other loved ones might make the dangers more palpable.
“Recalling some of the details of the crash, it teared me up just thinking how hurt my family would have been. I wasn’t thinking of my safety. I wasn’t thinking of my family. And that could have had a really big impact.”
“Hearing families’ stories, seeing the actual damage one text can do, hearing stories of how easily it can happen, hearing testimonies from people like me, not thinking it can happen to you when it can” are some of the things Shelby says might deter people of any age to think twice about using a smartphone behind the wheel for any reason.
“It can wait. And if it can’t, pull over. Pull off into a parking lot. Get off the road if it’s that important,” she says.
A Growing Epidemic
According to the latest national traffic safety data, distracted driving has become an epidemic in the U.S., claiming at least 3,450 lives in 2016 alone and injuring about 400,000 people by the most conservative numbers. More recent but incomplete data indicates the distracted driving epidemic continues to grow.
At any given time during daylight hours, nearly half a million drivers are using cell phones while driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This alarming number helps explain why, after decades of steady declines, the number of traffic deaths and injuries increased sharply to surpass levels not seen in half a century.
While cell phone use is on the rise across all segments of the driving population, teens are the largest age group reported as distracted drivers at the time of fatal crashes, U.S. traffic statistics show.
New York Post
National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies