For a while after the crash, Greer Sears-Reese would panic every time a piece of silverware fell onto the floor.
It's understandable: A few months earlier, the infant was in the back of a car on a two-lane highway outside of Lawrence when it was struck by a teenage driver who was on his phone texting.
Her dad, Josh Reese, understands as well. He was behind the wheel that day. The 32-year-old from Lawrence hasn't looked at driving the same since. He's constantly staring into oncoming traffic, preparing for the moment when, like three summers ago, another car starts drifting into his lane.
While Reese and his daughter walked away with bumps and bruises that day, the mental anguish from the incident persists. Because had Reese not swerved at the last minute, they could have been killed.
All for a text message.
It's a story that's becoming increasingly common, as more and more Americans become the victims of texting-while-driving accidents. But while numerous studies in recent years have illustrated the dangers of texting behind the wheel and 41 states have banned the practice, experts say it's going to take years and, unfortunately, more tragedy to properly stigmatize the behavior.
"Attitudes haven't changed because we haven't had enough deaths to change public opinion on the risks," said Paul Atchley, a Kansas University psychology professor who has studied the issue extensively. "As people hear more stories they can relate to, from people in crashes, or if they know someone in a crash, they'll realize that the benefits we gain by being able to post to Facebook when we drive are far outweighed by the risks to public safety."
Atchley published a study in 2011 that found that 97 percent of KU students texted while they drove. That same year, there were an estimated 200,000 texting-related accidents in the United States, according to the National Safety Council.
"My warning to everyone is drive like everyone is trying to kill you," he said, "because they probably are."
Few citations issued
So far this year, 13 people have been cited for texting while driving in Lawrence Municipal Court, while another five have been convicted of the violation in Douglas County District Court.
Those numbers might be higher if Kansas' 2011 texting ban were easier to enforce, said Lawrence Police Sgt. Trent McKinley. The law includes exemptions for making and receiving phone calls, looking up a phone number in an address book, using the GPS feature, and receiving texts for emergencies like Amber Alerts and severe weather.
"If we pull up next to someone and see them doing something with their phones, it's extremely difficult, especially from the vantage point of another vehicle, to determine whether someone is doing one of those permitted functions or texting," McKinley said.
One tactic the department has at its disposal is riding in a taller vehicle with two officers, with the one in the passenger seat checking to see if drivers are texting.
Lawrence almost lost one of its most popular educators to a 2011 accident that was likely caused by texting. Lawrence High School teacher David Platt, whose story of his recovery from the crash was featured in last week's Journal-World, was on the interstate near St. Louis when another vehicle crossed the median, hitting his car head-on. He suffered three broken ribs, a cracked sternum and collapsed lung, among other injuries.
The police investigation found that the driver of the other vehicle, a 16-year-old Illinois girl on her way to work at a local water park, had made or received three calls or texts in the four minutes before the accident was reported; a T-Mobile official told police they were likely texts because of how closely apart they occurred. Police called the texts or calls a "contributing cause" of the crash.
"I realize that there's this intrinsic social connection in humans where it's hard not to pay attention to your phone when you're in a car," Platt said. "We have to come up with a system that accounts for that." He suggested that insurance companies offer rebates to parents who restrict their children's cellphone usage in the car.
Corey Roelofs, a 30-year-old nurse from Lawrence, was driving Platt's vehicle when it was hit that day, and had to have his spleen removed as a result. He said his friends and family members now recognize the dangers of using their phones behind the wheel. He just hopes the public eventually will, too.
"There are times I'm driving around town and I see someone weaving through traffic or even at a stoplight staring at the phones, not reacting, and I think, man, if they had seen what we went through and that girl's family experienced, there's no way someone would feel comfortable being as dangerous as they are having a cellphone in their hand," he said.
The incident actually changed the course of Roelofs life. At the time of the accident, he worked as a nurse in Kansas City, Kan. But all the highway commuting took a mental toll on him, so he found a job closer to home, at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. He believes a ban on all handheld devices, like California and even Manhattan, Kan., has, would make the roads immeasurably safer.
Fateful, almost fatal, day
On July 9, 2010, Reese and his then 5-month-old daughter were heading east on Kansas Highway 32 when another vehicle crossed the centerline — and kept coming. Reese jerked the wheel to go into the other lane, but it was too late: The car smashed into the passenger side of his 2007 Ford Focus.
Both Reese and his daughter were taken to a local trauma center for testing. While they didn't sustain any major injuries, Reese was bedridden for a week with severe hip and back pain.
After the other driver's insurance company declined to pay for the trauma center visit, Reese hired a local attorney, Terry Campbell, to represent him. Campbell deposed the other driver, who denied using his phone before the accident. However, after Campbell subpoenaed the DeSoto man's phone records he found he had sent 13 texts in the nine minutes before he reported the accident to 911, including a picture message just one minute before. The insurance company settled.
The accident could have been a lot worse. Reese's wife usually drove her car right in front of his when they traveled from Lawrence to their then-hometown of Kansas City, Kan. They also sometimes carpooled. Instead, she decided to leave five minutes early that day.
Reese wishes cellphone companies would install software that disables texting when the devices are in a moving vehicle. Another fix, he said, might involve plainclothes police officers in unmarked cars looking strictly for texting drivers.
While the accident hasn't led Reese, who works in information technology, to invent a solution to this problem himself — at least not yet — it has turned him into an extremely careful driver.
"I know I'm looking at the road," he said. "I just hope everybody else is."