DeVries case spurs state to target driving while distracted
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DeVries case spurs state to target driving while distracted

For Andrea DeVries, Mother’s Day is forever etched into her mind as the day her youngest son was killed in a traffic accident.

Twenty-four-year-old Daniel DeVries was engaged and working in human resources at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus. He had graduated a year earlier from Monmouth University and lived with his parents, Andrea and Roger, in their Paramus home near the Ridgewood border. On Mother’s Day 2008, he was crossing the intersection of Maple and Ridgewood avenues when he was struck by a driver making a left turn. He was killed almost instantly.

The only charge brought against the driver was failure to yield to a pedestrian. There was no investigation into whether he had been intoxicated or operating a cell phone at the time of the accident, according to Andrea DeVries. The driver paid $300 in fines and had his license temporarily suspended, but DeVries said she felt justice had been eluded.

“We were just flabbergasted,” DeVries told The Jewish Standard earlier this week. “We were outraged. We were just shocked that this could just happen, especially after we read the witnesses’ accounts.”

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Andrea DeVries and her son Daniel, who was killed while in a Ridgewood pedestrian crosswalk on Mother’s Day 2008.

Since then, DeVries has been on a crusade to promote pedestrian safety and seek harsher penalties for motorists who drive and talk on their cell phones.

Last year, she attended a legislative breakfast at her synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. Her rabbi, Neal Borovitz, invited her to ask the speakers, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and a proxy for her then-rival for lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, about the case.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, who represents Paramus and sits on the state’s transportation committee, was in the audience. At her invitation, DeVries testified before the Assembly in January as it considered a bill increasing fines for those drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians.

“It made that bill come to life [and made us understand] that we had to do something more, that this is a problem,” Wagner said. “[DeVries] has so much courage to tell this story and to repeat this story and to try to promote pedestrian safety.”

The bill passed the legislature and Gov. Jon Corzine signed it as one of his final acts in office. The new law increases the fine of $100 to $500 if a victim is seriously injured as a result of the driver’s failure to yield. It also increases the maximum jail time from 15 to 25 days.

For DeVries, though, the new bill does not go far enough. She wants to see mandatory drug and alcohol testing and a check of cell-phone records for every driver who kills a pedestrian.

“It was a baby step,” she said of the legislation.

On average, 150 New Jersey pedestrians die each year in traffic accidents, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. And for each fatality, two more are injured. New Jersey began counting the number of crashes associated with cell phones in June 2001. In 2004, the state banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. In 2008, the state made texting while driving illegal.

In 2008, the state recorded 1,821 hand-held cell phone-related crashes and 1,383 hands-free cell phone-related crashes. With 159, Bergen County had the third highest number of hands-free crashes that year. Essex County recorded the highest with 380 and Hudson County the second highest with 310. Essex also led the number of hand-held related crashes with 252, while Bergen registered 149. Hudson recorded 102.

“Pedestrian deaths are an epidemic in New Jersey,” DeVries said. “Drivers are not being held responsible. Drivers are more and more distracted by technology.”

According to Distraction.gov, a Website set up by the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are three main types of driver distraction: visual, taking your eyes off the road; manual, taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive, taking your mind off what you are doing.

Texting is the most alarming distraction, according to the site, because it involves all three types of distraction.

“I don’t know whether adults realize this,” said Elana Flaumenhaft, assistant principal at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, but “a student can have a cell phone in her pocket, look you in the face, and text the entire time with her thumb. Because they can do that, they don’t see what the issue is.”

None of the three yeshiva high schools in Bergen County offer drivers’ education. At Ma’ayanot, however, the senior class each year is witness to a presentation on the dangers of drunk driving.

Texting while driving should be addressed as well, said Ruth Wang Birnbaum, assistant principal for academic affairs at Ma’ayanot. She pointed to statistics that show that texting while driving is as dangerous as drinking while driving.

“It’s not an issue of your hands being free, it’s an issue of you being distracted,” she said. Hands-free devices, she continued, are “irrelevant.”

An estimated 515,000 people were injured and 5,870 people were killed nationwide in 2008 in police-reported crashes in which at least one driver distraction was reported, according to Distraction.gov. According to the National Safety Council, at least 1.4 million crashes nationwide are caused by drivers talking on cell phones, while at least 200,000 crashes are caused by drivers who are texting.

According to statistics from the University of Utah posted on Distraction.gov, using a cell phone while driving, whether hands-free or not, affects a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol level of .08, the legal limit. Carnegie Mellon University found that driving while using a cell phone results in a reduction of 37 percent in the amount of brain activity associated with driving, while a Virginia Tech study found that 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some type of distraction.

Drivers using hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes that result in injury, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

During the past 23 months, according to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, police issued 224,725 citations – an average of more than 9,000 a month – to drivers violating the state’s cell-phone laws.

“We are making progress in our efforts to ensure that all motorists are aware of the consequences they face if they choose to talk on a cell phone or text while driving,” said Pam Fischer, director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety in a statement on Wednesday. “Any cell-phone conversation while driving, whether hand-held or hands-free, is distracting and dangerous and can result in crashes, injuries, and in some cases the loss of life.”

Teaneck Police Chief Robert Wilson said his department has been targeting cell-phone usage since the second half of last year. New Jersey, he noted, has a very high rate of seatbelt usage because of high rates of enforcement.

“Hopefully we’ll get the same effect [for cell-phone usage] as seatbelt usage,” he said.

Teaneck’s Lt. Robert Carney does not see cell-phone usage increasing among drivers but he does not see the problem abating until the state punishes violators with points on their licenses.

“People seem to believe if they put [a cell phone] on speakerphone while still holding it, it’s hands-free,” he said.

The man who struck and killed Daniel DeVries will never return to trial or face stiffer punishment than the handful of fines he has already paid. Andrea DeVries’ personal quest for justice is over, but she continues fighting to prevent others from having to share her nightmare. Through Weinberg, DeVries has been in touch with the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, which does pro bono work to promote victims’ rights, in order to help others get the justice she feels she never received.

“The only thing I can do now is try to prevent this from happening to other people,” she said. “When you get behind the wheel of a car it can be a deadly weapon if it’s not operated properly.”

Freedom carries responsibility under Jewish law, said Avodat Shalom’s Borovitz. Drivers need greater accountability under the law. (See also Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer’s column.)

“The Jewish idea of freedom emphasized throughout the Torah is freedom under law,” Borovitz said. “We have to have rules where we recognize every human being is created in the image of God and has value and therefore we have to be accountable for our actions.”

He pointed to strict laws in Massachusetts and California that stop traffic when pedestrians enter crosswalks. In April, state law will change regarding pedestrians and crosswalks, a result of another last-minute Corzine act. The new law will require motorists to come to a complete stop for pedestrians in crosswalks instead of just yielding to them.

“Nothing can be done to bring back the pure and wonderful soul that was Danny DeVries,” Borovitz said, “but there should be something to make sure there aren’t more victims like Danny.”

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