A heartrending loss and a plea about distracted driving

August 3, 2013

Authorities say that Idowu Daramola, shown in Hudson County Superior Court in Jersey City, N.J., on Thursday, was driving a bus that struck a lamppost that fell on 8-month-old Angelie Paredes, killing the baby. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

On Monday, a beautiful summer day in northern New Jersey, 8-month-old Angelie Paredes passed a milestone: She went on a park swing for the first time. Like many new fathers, Jairo Paredes captured the moment with his camera, sharing on social media an image reflecting his daughter’s radiant joy of discovery.

A day later, when the weather was equally temperate, that bucolic memory was sadly eclipsed by one of trauma and chaos. Angelie was dead, the victim of a freak bus accident.

What investigators have said, according to news reports, is that Angelie was riding in a stroller being pushed by her mother, Maylin Paredes, on the sidewalk alongside a park overlooking the Hudson River in West New York, N.J. A commuter bus crashed into a streetlight, knocking it over, and the lamppost crushed the baby’s head.

The bus driver, Idowu Daramola, 48, of Thornwood, N.Y., was charged on Thursday in Hudson County Superior Court with reckless driving, death by auto and using a cellphone while operating a vehicle, according to the Associated Press. His bail has been set at $250,000.

The death of Angelie has broken the hearts not only of her family but also of people who never knew her, who didn’t know she was just learning to stand up, who didn’t know she was born last November after a difficult pregnancy. A large memorial of flowers, balloons, candles and children’s drawings has grown day by day at the site of the accident.

Maylin and Jairo Paredes have asked for privacy as they grieve their devastating loss, but their friend Julio Marenco, who has been acting as their spokesman, said the couple hopes that this will stop people from using their cellphones while driving.

“It’s a heinous, stupid act,” Marenco said in a news conference earlier this week. “We all do it, and hopefully, although nothing great ever comes out of this situation — but let’s hope out of this we all learn to stop doing it.”

As heartrending as the Paredes family’s story is, the truth is that scores of lives have been lost because of drivers using cellphones to talk or text.

In 2011, crashes involving a distracted driver killed 3,331, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes other activities – like eating – that cause a driver to take his or her eyes off the road. The 2011 figure was up from 3,267 in 2010.

Sixty-nine percent of U.S. drivers between the ages of 18 and 64 reported that they had talked on a cellphone while driving within 30 days of the 2011 survey, the CDC said. And 31 percent said they had read or sent text messages or e-mails while driving within the 30 days before they were surveyed.

Efforts have been made to encourage and compel drivers to put away their cellphones. States have passed laws barring cellphone use by drivers. Nonprofit organizations have waged media campaigns.

Last month Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed into law a bill that steps up penalties for drivers who are caught using their handheld cellphones while behind the wheel. When the law takes effect in 2014, the minimum fine for a first offense will be $200. Judges will also have the option of suspending licenses for 90 days for a third offense.

The Jersey City Medical Center has developed a walking course that simulates the dangers of distracted driving.

But when was the last time you were in your car and did not see someone (perhaps even me, or yourself) using a cellphone while driving?

This is a problem that can be solved without action by Congress, without tougher penalties from state legislatures and without technology to block cellphones in cars. All that is needed is for drivers to put the phones down.

If you can’t ignore the ring or beeps, turn the phone off while driving. If that’s not enough, put it in the glove compartment while you’re driving. If that’s still not enough, put the phone in the trunk.

It’s so easy to justify taking just one call, reading just one text. And even if nothing catastrophic happens with that one distraction, it still serves as a signal to others that this kind of behavior is okay. It’s not.

Just ask Maylin and Jairo Paredes.

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Kirsten Powers | August 2, 2013