A close call for girls driving with cell phone

 

A close call for girls driving with cell phone

 

 
Cheyenne Tontegode (left) and Rahela Vrazalica were in an auto accident while using cell phones last February. (ROBERT BECKER/Lincoln Journal Star)
 
By JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star | Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2009 10:55 am
 
Rewind eight months to a cold, clear Monday night in February.
 
Connie Carroll and her neighbor are driving south on 27th Street after a PEO meeting.
 
Mario Scalora and his 13-year-old son are behind Carroll's car, headed home after soccer practice.
 
Rahela Vrazalica, 16, and her friend are driving in the opposite direction, toward her cousins' house.
 
The time hits 9:01, and through her Toyota SUV windshield, Carroll watches as the northbound car drifts, swerves and launches over the median - headed straight at her headlights.
 
Oh man, this is it.
 
Scalora watches, too, as the smaller car smashes head on into the larger one and the windshield on the smaller car -- a Toyota Corolla -- dents and pops with the pressure of the teenage passenger's face.
 
"I had to do a double take, to be honest."
 
Fast forward to an evening in early October. The teenage driver and passenger, Cheyenne Tontegode, are telling their story, sitting around the dining room table of Cheyenne's grandmother Connie Yost.
 
They don't remember much about the crash, the hours afterward or the next day when Rahela spent 13 hours in the operating room, and Cheyenne spent nine.
 
The police report lists texting as the cause.
 
The teens can't say exactly what started the sequence that led to serious injuries to four people.
 
But the two have no doubt a cell phone is what caused Rahela to turn her attention from the road.
 
You've likely seen the statistics.
 
And many of you probably have answered a ringing phone while behind the wheel, taking your eyes off the road to find it, pick it up, see who's calling, push a button, then divide your attention between the conversation and your driving.
 
Even talking on a hands-free device is said to have as much effect as driving with a .08 blood alcohol level - legally drunk in Nebraska.
 
Crashes caused by cell phone distractions are going up in Nebraska, from 117 in 2002 to 121 in 2007 and 141 in 2008. Forty-two of those in 2008 involved teens.
 
AAA Motor Club would like to see all states ban driver texting by 2013.
 
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers. Nine states prohibit texting by young drivers.
 

 

In an August Harris survey, 80 percent of respondents supported legislation that would ban texting and e-mailing while driving. A little more than half said they would ban all cell phone use behind the wheel.
 
State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff says he is working on a bill to introduce in January that would ban texting by Nebraska drivers. He sees a lot of it in his drives between his home and Lincoln, he said.
 
"I don't think you can text message and drive," he said. "I just think it's time to (ban) it."
 
Harms succeeded in passing a law in 2007 - despite the governor's veto - that prohibits teenage drivers with a provisional operator's permit from using a cell phone while driving. It's a secondary offense, meaning a driver must first be ticketed for another traffic offense.
 
Gov. Dave Heineman didn't like the bill because, he said, it substituted the "wisdom, judgment and responsibility of parents with that of state government."
 
Rahela was ticketed after the wreck - for negligent driving.
 
As Rahela and Cheyenne tell their story, they pause every few minutes to remember another injury that resulted from the crash.
 
For Rahela: A concussion; damaged hip; broken leg, ankle, knee, ribs, nose and jaw; collapsed lungs; battered face; knocked-out teeth.
 
For Cheyenne: A leg bone split and crushed in 14 places; a face carved by windshield glass; glass in one eye; a broken nose; broken ribs; collapsed lung.
 
Cheyenne bit through her tongue, bending her tongue ring in half.
 
A relative spent four hours combing out her hair, matted with blood and glass, so she wouldn't have to cut it.
 
Cheyenne remembers asking a paramedic through a haze of sleepiness: Am I going to die?
 
She remembers his answer: I don't know.
 
She spent 10 days in the hospital. Rahela stayed two weeks, and then spent three months in a wheelchair.
 
Eight months later, Rahela's face is still numb on the left side. Her emotions are just now leveling off: A kid who reports she rarely cried before found herself crying for almost any reason. She can't walk too far without getting tired, and her hip grinds and hurts when she climbs stairs.
 
She's had three surgeries since getting out of the hospital.
 
Cheyenne's face is scarred, and her leg has a long red scar down the outside, and her bone is growing sideways.
 
"I have a lot of bad dreams about the car accident," she says. "I don't feel like the same person."
They missed three and a half months of school.
 
Cheyenne's medical bills totaled around $90,000. Rahela's were much more, with added hospital time and more surgeries.
 
Now, they say, they appreciate life, school and family more.
 
But their friends, who swore off texting while driving after the crash, have resumed it.
 
They forget.
 
As the teens continue their story, Cheyenne's grandmother joins in. She would like to see a law banning cell phone distractions while driving, and stiff penalties for violations.
 
Truthfully, she would welcome a minimum age of 18 to drive.
 
Rahela's mother, Mirsada, picks up an eight-month-old photo of her daughter's post-crash face.
One look still brings tears.
 
Witness Mario Scalora, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology professor, was behind Connie Carroll's car when Rahela's car crashed into it. Across the lane, he saw the car drift toward the right, then dramatically overcorrect, going out of control and across the median.
 
"The people in the SUV had no time to react," he said.
 
From her 2008 Toyota Highlander, Carroll wondered: What's that driver doing? What's going on?
 
Then Rahela's car hit, pushing Carroll's engine under her car.
 
"I thought we were dying, that nobody could live through this," she said last week.
 
Carroll couldn't breathe at first, and her chest hurt. She heard her passenger, Jodene Pfeiffer, moaning.
 
"I was so scared for her," she said.
 
Carroll ended up with deep purple bruises on her chest where the airbag hit. The bags hit them both with such force the seat belts burned into their microfiber coats.
 
Pfeiffer had pins put in her left hand. Two small fingers were shattered.
 
Both are still getting physical therapy for broken hands.
 
"It's still scary at night to drive," Carroll says. "I see those headlights coming at me."
 
Many people have told Carroll they text and drive.
 
"I say, 'Don't do it.'"
 
The experience was a horrible way for the teens to learn the lesson, she says.
"A lot of prayers have been said for those girls on our end."
 
Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

 

 

 

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