With so much of our lives spent in cars, Judy Bouchard believes it’s important to remember how quickly they can crash and end human lives.
Bouchard, a long-time school teacher in Madawaska, lost her 24-year-old daughter Heather Dawn on April 15, 2008, to a crash caused by cellphone distraction.
“If Heather Dawn had known how this would devastate us, she would have never talked on the phone and drove,” said Bouchard at the recent Aroostook County safety symposium at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. “She didn’t think it would happen to her.”
A University of New England graduate working as an autism educator, Heather Dawn was driving on I-295, en route to work from her home in Yarmouth, when she took a phone call from a client, dropped the phone and removed her seat belt to pick it up, Bouchard said. The car crossed the median and collided with a WCSH-TV van. She was ejected from the car and died later that day of the injuries. She was an organ donor, but the crash was so destructive none could be used, Bouchard said. Two employees from WCSH survived without serious injuries.
The rise of distracted driving — much but not all stemming from cellphones — has left more families living with grief like the Bouchards.
Of the 32,675 deaths from motor vehicle crashes in 2014, 3,179 involved distracted driving, according to the federal government’s Distraction.gov. (The government estimates that 9,967 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes). About 431,000 people were also injured in distracted driving crashes in 2014, and distractions are thought to play a role in 10 percent of fatal crashes with teen drivers.
“Heather loved her cellphone,” Bouchard recounted at the safety symposium. “She would call me, and I would say, ‘Heather Dawn, are you driving?’ They learned not to call us when they were driving.”
The average person texting while driving will take his eyes off the road for about five seconds, which at 55 miles per hour means the driver is traveling the length of a football field without looking, according to Distraction.gov.
Maine law prohibits texting while driving, and commercial vehicle drivers are not allowed to use a cellphone except with a hands-free device. Still, police and public health advocates worry that the distracting cellphone use is rampant but only caught after a crash.
“The problem from a law enforcement standpoint is, we can’t tell if they’re dialing or texting,” Presque Isle police chief Matt Irwin said at safety the conference. “If you were in an accident and you had a phone, there will be some investigation of what you were doing on the phone at the time, and it’s at that point that someone may be charged with texting and driving,” he said.
Heather Dawn Bouchard was engaged and working in autism education when she died. She wanted to open an education center dedicated to autistic youth in the Saint John Valley — and her mother has turned that idea into reality with an after-school program called the Heather and Liam Connection.
Named after Heather and a young boy she taught in southern Maine, the program currently serves students at Madawaska Elementary School, and is set to expand to Fort Kent this fall, Bouchard said. It’s a way to continue her daughter’s passion for education, Bouchard said.
“People will speak of closure, of moving on, of getting over it, of grief coming to end. I know these people have not experienced a thing called losing a child,” Bouchard said. “Eventually, I’ve learned to carry the weight of this pain.”