By Carter Gipson
Recently, Frederick County law enforcement agencies have begun an initiative to crack down on cell phone use and other distractions while driving.
According to the Frederick County Sheriff’s office, part of this initiative will include weekly target enforcement areas in which different law enforcement agencies in Frederick County team up to focus on enforcing distracted driving laws on one particular road or in one particular spot. Electronic signs have been posted alongside roads across the county with the intent to raise awareness about distracted driving. Many of the target enforcement areas are in and around the Urbana area.
Urbana residents Cliff and Rebecca Hageman have done all they can to keep this message going forward after Cliff lost his leg due to an accident while another driver was texting. On April 17, Cliff got a prosthetic leg.
“We are so aware of what people do when they drive now,” Rebecca said. “It’s unreal! People will text and put make up on and drink coffee all at the same time! Sometimes Cliff will pick his [prosthetic] leg up — if I am driving and he’s in the passenger seat — and say, “Hey! Put down your phone!” Cliff has a witty personality and we try to keep humor and a positive attitude in everything we do.”
Lieutenant Bruce DeGrange said that some drivers actually shave or apply makeup while driving. Add that to the statistics, and you get a pretty grim picture: In Maryland, more than 30,000 people per year are either killed or injured in more than 53,000 accidents.
Cliff’s accident happened when he was headed to work one morning last September when a distracted driver changed his life forever. Hageman was pulling out of a gas station when a car crossed three lanes of traffic and collided with his car.
Hageman was struck hard on his left side and his femoral artery was severed. Luckily, he was able to maintain consciousness and instruct bystanders to use their own shirts to make tourniquets, saving his life. Since then, Hageman has endured 18 surgeries, and his leg has been amputated.
Hageman is still recovering from his injuries and may require more surgeries in the future. In addition to the obvious physical trauma of such an accident, Rebecca listed the other losses the family is experiencing: Cliff has missed snowboarding with his kids, college visits with his daughter and getting down to the field to watch his son play baseball.
Finances have been strained as well. Fortunately, the community has been very supportive. In addition to providing meals from September through February, neighbors and friends have come together to support the Hagemans through a fundraiser at the Urbana fire hall and another through the Patty Pallotos fund.
The family’s hardship has been made worse by legal disappointments. According to Rebecca, police did not follow up after the accident, and the driver who hit Cliff’s car went unpunished for months. Rebecca pushed the police to pursue the case further, but she is “disappointed with the outcome.” The driver still has her license. The Hagemans are filing a civil suit, but the situation is complicated because the driver lives out of state, and has few assets.
New legislation was recently adopted to strengthen the consequences of distracted driving in the future. Jake’s Law, which went into effect in Maryland on Oct. 1, requires offenders to face $5,000 in fines and up to a year in jail for contributing to a serious car crash. The law was crafted in response to the death of 5-year-old Jake Owen in a collision with a distracted driver. Advocates hope the new law will provide enough incentive for people to put down their phones while driving.
Although Jake’s Law does not apply to the Hageman family, whose accident preceded the legislation, Rebecca is hoping it will make a difference. She has spoken publicly about Cliff’s accident, to spread the word about the consequences of distracted driving, and she hopes people will learn from their story. She was chosen to be an “FCPS All-Star” and was interviewed about their experiences. The interview was put on YouTube and shared with FCPS students. “People have written to us saying they watched it with their children and families — influencing them not to text and drive.” Rebecca also talks with her Centerville Elementary School class about this topic. Cliff is slated to speak May 12 at the FFA Banquet.
Distracted driving is never justified, said Rebecca. While she admits that before this incident she occasionally pulled out her phone for navigation while driving, she has never done so since. In fact, she describes herself and her husband as the new “texting police” in Urbana.
Kate Barry, a senior at Urbana High School, agreed that texting is never OK. “A lot of students don’t really think that [an accident like this] can happen to them, even when they’re texting and driving,” Barry said. However, the story of the Hageman family has apparently resonated with many students in the area. “This story has made students realize that accidents like this really can happen to them, and it really makes them think twice before picking up the phone,” said Barry.
According to Barry and Oakdale senior Ryan Shadoan, the most prevalent issues among teenagers are checking notifications and changing a song playing in the car. Barry and Shadoan both agree that distracted driving is a big issue and that the majority of students are guilty.
Currently, motorists charged with distracted driving are fined $83 for the first offense, $140 for the second offense and $160 for every offense after that. Rebecca believes that these fines are not nearly sufficient to prevent distracted driving, and she thinks consequences should be much more severe if the distracted driving actually causes an accident.
Barry agreed. “These fines don’t even really prevent teens from texting or changing music while driving, much less adults,” she said. “If the fines were higher, maybe that would make more of an impact.”
On the other hand, Shadoan thinks the fines are enough of an incentive, but the rules should be enforced more strictly. “If the school resource officer just sat by as kids were entering and leaving [the] school [parking lot], that would definitely make kids put their phones down.”
“People think they are invincible but they’re not,” said Rebecca. “Just a quick text can change an entire family’s life.”
Editor’s Note: Carter Gipson is a sophomore at Oakdale High School. Besides writing for The Town Courier, he is an active member of Oakdale’s mock trial team, lacrosse team, football team, student government, and model united nations club.