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Susan Yum Headshot

Cell Phones and Driving is The New Drunk Driving

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The series of blogs on Huffington Post about distracted driving make great arguments supported by very compelling statistics, so I instead of trying to do the same, I thought that I would share my personal story about the devastation cell phone distracted driving can have on a family in hopes that readers will put their cell phones away while driving.

On December 28, 2011, our family was on our way to the mall to exchange some Christmas presents when we were struck from behind by an SUV going 62 miles per hour. After getting over the initial shock, I looked to the back seat and see my five-year old son's head was pushed up against the driver side headrest, his eyes were closed and there was a trickle of blood down the side of his head. My then nine-year old daughter, Alex, asked "What happened?"

My husband rushed out the driver-side door yelling for help. My door was jammed, so I couldn't get out of the car. Next thing I know, other people got the door open and got my children out of the car. Another driver, who later I discovered was a doctor, told me that my daughter's femur was broken and that I needed to tell her to keep still. She was crying out and trying to move because she was in so much pain.

Then the emergency vehicles started to arrive. I was told to ride on the Medevac helicopter with my daughter as the helicopter with my son already left. My husband's shoulder was shattered, so he had to ride in an ambulance as he could not be safely secured in the helicopter.

At the hospital, I walked by a gurney with a pool of blood on the bottom and I wondered if it's my son's. Hospital officials came to get me after Alex was whisked away by a team of doctors and nurses. They told me it didn't look good and that I should go to the trauma room where he was. I was so terrified that I was tempted to refuse to go with them, and then when I realized that if he was going to die, I could not let my son die among only strangers. When I entered the room, I noticed that Jake's feet were bare and all I could focus on were his little toes, and doctors were working on him so furiously. Then one of the doctors said the dreaded words that no mother wants to hear. He said, "Mom, we have to call it."

The driver of the SUV was on his cell phone and did not notice for approximately 500 yards (length of five football fields) that the traffic in front of him had stopped due to a previous accident. According to a data retrieval device in his car, which downloads data the moment the airbag is deployed; he had not even applied his breaks when he hit us. After a recent trial in Maryland, the driver was fined a mere $1,000 for killing a five-year old boy and seriously injuring two others. Under the current statute of criminally negligent manslaughter in Maryland, crashes caused by cell phone distraction are considered just an "accident."

A May 2013 study by the Cohen Children's Medical Center found that texting and driving is now responsible for more teen deaths than drinking and driving -- and that doesn't even consider other cell phone related crashes and deaths. A 2009 Car & Driver study revealed that drivers had a slower reaction time to braking when reading a text while driving than when driving under the influence. At 35 MPH, driving while drunk added seven feet to a driver's unimpaired braking response, reading a text added 45 feet and texting added 41 feet.

Cell phone use while driving is the new drunk driving -- drunk driving 2.0. And yet while many states ban the use of hand held cell phones and texting while driving, very few states have stiff consequences for drivers who cause crashes because they were using their cell phone. To date, I only know of Utah and Illinois that have passed legislation that specifically address cell phone related crashes.

Jake's death was preventable. It was a clear sunny day and the message board on northbound 83 stated that there was an accident ahead, which alerted my husband and I that there would be traffic. We were stopped in traffic when suddenly struck from behind -- this could've happened to any family, and unfortunately, unless society and lawmakers change the way they view cell phone use while driving, it will happen to other families. Every state should have legislation that treats a crash caused by a driver on his cell phone as an inherently reckless act that can no longer be considered an "accident," just as a crash caused by a drunk driver is no longer categorized as an "accident."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.