The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My father died because of a distracted driver. We have to do more so it doesn’t happen to others.

It’s his hands I remember most — one folded over the other so peacefully, as the hands of the dead so often are.

When my brother first told me that my dad had been killed in a crash, I assumed the collision had happened at night, perhaps because of a drunk driver. But a teenager in an SUV had run a red light on a summer afternoon while talking on a cellphone.

I was 25 then, barely an adult. I tried to prepare myself before I walked up to my father’s coffin. I’d remembered how other loved ones had looked, their bodies empty. The body is a shell, the spirit departed — at least, that’s how adults had always explained it.

So when I looked down and saw his hands, the thought that entered my mind was, “My father’s not in there.”

Those hands had once palmed a basketball, thrown footballs to my brother Dave and me, and slapped a tabletop to make a point. Once, when I was in high school, my father told me to close my eyes and hold one of my hands next to his.

“Tell me when you think our hands are touching,” he said.

“Now,” I guessed.

But our hands were still inches apart.

“That’s just the heat you’re feeling,” he told me. “You’re a fire sign like I am. We’re fueled by fire.”

After college I moved to New York City to become a writer. My parents were nervous, but my father encouraged me because it was something he had wanted to do, too.

The city was brutal and wonderful at the same time. Thanks to the Internet, I fell in love with a guy who lived across the country. His name was Steven, and he flew from Seattle once a month to visit me. On one trip, we took a bus to Delaware so he could meet my family.

Five days later, my brother called as I was leaving work to tell me that my dad had been killed in a crash in Limerick, Pa. His name was Michael Carney, but everyone knew him as “Mick.” He was 54 years old.

After my father’s funeral came the trial of the 17-year-old driver. She took the stand in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. She cried as she testified. She told the judge that the light had been green, not red; she said perhaps it had malfunctioned. Seven witnesses, some also in tears, testified that she had, in fact, run a red light in her Ford Excursion.

The judge fined her $200 for running a red light and careless driving in the August 2003 crash. He also suspended her license for a year. But he did something else, something I wouldn’t pay attention to until years later: He cited her for talking on a cellphone.

I stayed in New York after my father’s death because that was what he would have wanted. I found a job at the Associated Press and pitched my first story: “Is it safe for a teenager to drive an SUV?”

Experts told me teens had no business driving SUV’s, that the vehicles were too much for them to handle. I didn’t tell anyone at the AP about my personal connection to the topic. For a long time, I rarely talked about my dad’s tragedy or told anyone what happened.

Finally, in July 2013, I saw it. I was at Good Housekeeping, editing a story about a man who had lost his daughter in a crash. Casey Feldman, 21, an aspiring journalist at Fordham University, was walking home from a summer job in Ocean City, N.J., when a delivery van driver became distracted, ran a stop sign and killed her. Her father learned afterward that the driver had been holding some iced tea and reaching for a GPS device at the same time. 

In his grief, Joel Feldman thought about his daughter’s interest in journalism. She had believed that telling stories made a difference. So Joel started a nonprofit, End Distracted Driving, in Casey’s honor and began telling her story in schools.

Alarms went off in my head as I read the story. My father had also died because of a distracted driver.

It was so obvious, and yet it hadn’t occurred to me before. Like most people, I had believed that multitasking was a skill and that some were better at it than others. I didn’t know yet that no one is really capable of using a phone and focusing on driving. I didn’t know that distractions can overload the brain and make safe driving nearly impossible.

But that’s the case. A driver’s field of vision shrinks when he begins a phone conversation, whether on a handheld device or hands free. The panorama in the windshield instead becomes a small box — so small that it can be impossible to distinguish the color of a traffic light.

I realized then that the teenager who killed my father insisted the traffic light had been green because that’s the color she thought she saw. Distraction made the traffic light virtually invisible.

I wanted to know more. I attended one of Joel’s talks for EndDD. I learned that distracted driving had become one of the biggest teenage killers in the United States — and that it’s also completely preventable. Nobody has to lose a father, or any family member, the way my family did.

When Steven proposed marriage, I was thrilled — but also saddened that my father would not be present at my wedding. I felt angry, too, about having lived with this injustice for so long. I didn’t want to carry it into my marriage. Something needed to be done.

I finally accepted Joel’s invitation to talk to a New Jersey middle school, though I wasn’t yet ready to write about my experience for his website,

Then one night as a car service drove me home from a late shift at work, the driver tried to show me a photo of his granddaughter on his phone. It caused him to swerve.

Although I had never written anything on social media about my father’s death, I felt now that I had to. I wrote a Facebook posting about the car service driver. I wrote that because of a distracted driver, my father could never show anyone a photo of his granddaughter. He could never even meet his granddaughter. And he certainly wouldn’t be walking me down the aisle at my wedding.

I also wrote an essay for Joel’s website. I ran the New York City Marathon to raise money for the cause. The campaign attracted news coverage, and the National Safety Council (NSC) invited me to become a national advocate.

At my first NSC conference, I was touched when a nervous young woman told me that she had followed my journey to advocacy on Facebook.

“It’s because of your story that I feel brave enough to tell my own,” she told me.

Months later, on my wedding day, I felt panicky as I was about to walk down the aisle.

“He should be here,” I said.

My mom and stepfather squeezed my arms. “He’s here,” they told me.

When the wedding photographs came back later, one showed the three of us walking down the aisle, the sun shining between the tall pinyon pines behind us. I remembered how warm the sun felt, like the heat of a hand just inches away from my own. And I knew that they were right.

My father was there.

Laura Carney is a magazine copy editor, writer and illustrator who lives in Montclair, N.J. Laura has written for Good Housekeeping, Runner’s World, the Associated Press, OK! magazine, McSweeney’s, Monkeybicycle, Vagabondage Press and other publications. She is writing a memoir about her father.

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