One moment of inattention changed lives

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Two chatty teenage girls. A dark road, a fast car and an intersection.

In her new book, “Spoken From the Heart,” former first lady Laura Bush describes how those factors combined to end one young life and nearly ruin several others.

The painful story says several things.

First, that the fatal consequences of distracted driving are not entirely new.

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Second, that while we rightly concentrate on the innocent victims of such accidents, the drivers who cause them often suffer under a lifelong cloud of guilt and remorse.

In her book, which goes on sale May 4, Bush gives a more detailed account of her 1963 accident on a rural road in Midland, Texas.

Bush writes that she was at the wheel of her father’s Chevy Impala, chatting with a young friend, when she ran a stop sign and smashed into a car operated by Mike Douglas, a popular athlete and student at her high school.

“The whole time,” she writes, “I was praying that the person in the other car was alive. In my mind, I was calling, ‘Please, God. Please, God. Please, God,’ over and over again.”

She describes “humbly begging” God in the emergency room to spare the young man’s life.

“The only answer was the sound of Mrs. Douglas’s sobs on the other side of that thin emergency room curtain.”

Bush says she lost her faith in God for “many, many years,” and was wracked by guilt.

Bush’s candid admission comes at a time when more and more legislators, insurance companies and safety experts are focusing on the role of distracted drivers in serious accidents.

While cars are many times safer now than they were in 1963, the number of distractions and demands on a driver’s attention have multiplied.

There are cell phones, smart phones, mapping devices and even TV sets in cars. One of the most serious dangers is the tendency of people — and not just young people — to send text messages while driving.

Several studies have concluded that a driver sending a text message is about as dangerous as a drunken driver.

For younger, less experienced drivers, texting may be just one of several distractions unfolding at the same time.  Loud music and conversation can combine to further divide a driver’s attention.

Last week, Michigan became the 23rd state to specifically ban texting while driving. Two other states, Kentucky and Nebraska, approved similar bans early in April.

Maine, for its part, last year passed a broader law outlawing all forms of distracted driving that cause accidents.

While tougher laws are useful in drawing attention to a problem, the other half of the solution is education.

Driving is inherently complex and dangerous. It involves moving thousands of pounds of metal among bicyclists, pedestrians, obstacles and other vehicles. It requires full attention.

As Mrs. Bush’s new book painfully shows, one stupid mistake — one moment of inattention — can end lives or forever change them.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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