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A sobering lesson for distracted drivers

In putting together a recent news story about “Project Ignition,” the youth-driven public awareness initiative sponsored by State Farm Insurance and the National Youth Leadership Council, I couldn’t help but reflect on how closely that story hit home.

Something that happened recently in the little town where I live brought home to everyone here how quickly a car can go off track and take a life – and another life with it. It only takes a second.

A teenager driving an SUV was late for school and speeding down a quiet street in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where two adults and five children were walking away from the school bus stop. Momentarily distracted, the driver veered off-course, jumped the curb, and crashed into the group. Several of them were injured. One of them, a 18-month-old toddler named Kate who had been riding in a stroller, was killed. Kate’s mother is a teacher at my children’s school. She was just about to start the day with her first-graders when she got the call.

My son and I went to leave some flowers at the accident site. When I pulled the car over, my son asked, “Are you sure this is the right place?” I pointed out the flowers, teddy bears, and photographs already piled up. “But this road is wide open and straight,” he said, starting to get upset. “There aren’t any hills or twists. How could he lose control of his car here?”

The answer, of course, is that he was late for school and distracted by …  something. What that something is, we don’t yet know. It will come out before long. The boy, who is 16, is being tried for involuntary manslaughter.

The speeding and distraction have become something of a distraction in themselves for our community, which is very close-knit and which continues to mourn this child. Both these children, I should say. Because the teenager’s is the other life that’s irrevocably gone off track. Many people here are focused on the enormity of his crime and its horrifying consequences – understandably so. But by focusing on the outrageousness of what he did, we miss something much more important: its commonness.

How often have you been driving and suddenly realized you’d drifted into the bicycle lane? Changed lanes and didn’t see that motorcycle in your blind spot? Mistimed a yellow light and went through on red? In short, done something that didn’t end in horrifying tragedy only because there didn’t happen to be anyone in that spot where your car shouldn’t have been?

If we convince ourselves that Kate died because one really bad kid did one really bad thing that none of us would ever do, then we’ve missed the one chance there might be to scrape some small shred of good out of this horrible, awful thing. We need to look at this small life that barely got to be, and say, “That could have been me that took that life, but now I’m going to make sure that that will never happen.”

One person you might not expect to be able to see it that way: Kate’s mother. But one of the first things she did in the days after Kate’s death was to found a charity, Kate’s Krew (, whose mission will be to teach teenagers about the dangers of distracted driving.

If she can see the possibilities for making something good come from this, then I think the rest of us can make the same effort.

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