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Distracted driving enforcement to honor fallen trooper

Kim Morava - The Shawnee News-Star - USA Today Network
Trooper Nicholas Dees died in 2015 after being struck by a distracted driver.

Six years ago this month, along Interstate 40 east of Shawnee, a distracted driver struck and killed Trooper Nicholas Dees while he investigated an accident scene.

In the years since that tragedy, what happened that night has prompted more awareness about distracted driving, including presentations at high schools locally and across the state, as well as passage of a new state law.

And through the end of this month, as a way to honor Trooper Dees, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and partnering agencies are conducting special emphasis enforcement campaigns focusing on distracted driving violations or signs of inattentive driving.

On Jan. 31, 2015, Trooper Dees and Trooper Keith Burch were on patrol and dispatched to investigate a collision involving a tractor-trailer rig on Interstate 40 in Seminole County near the Pottawatomie County line.

While the troopers were standing outside of their patrol units investigating that accident, a distracted driver traveled into the scene and struck both troopers. Trooper Dees died instantly and Trooper Burch suffered serious injuries and faced a long road to recovery.

The driver of the vehicle was charged and later convicted of manslaughter.

Trooper Aaron Nickell, during a recent OHP podcast, said it was revealed in court that the driver charged in the case had sent 69 messages during his drive before the fatal crash occurred.

State troopers, in discussing the special enforcement campaign for the rest of this month, also recalled that night and talked about the consequences of distracted driving.

“We do take it very seriously when we see someone driving with a cell phone in hand,” said Trooper Eric Foster, adding that emphasis on enforcement helps educate drivers about the dangers and consequences of distracted driving, as well as the state law.

The accident prompted the Trooper Nicholas Dees and Trooper Keith Burch Act, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Mary Fallin in May of 2015.

The law, which went into effect Nov. 1, 2015, states in part, “It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle on any street or highway within this state while using a handheld electronic communication device to manually compose, send or read an electronic text message while the motor vehicle is in motion.” The OHP reports that law includes surfing social media sites.

Inattentive driving can include many things that can a driver's eyes off the road besides cell phones, Trooper Nickell said, including eating or using GPS, which is why education about it is so important.

Recent statistics from OHP show there were more than 8,600 crashes in Oklahoma that involved at least one distracted driver in 2019. Those crashes killed 41 people and seriously injured 240 more.

During this campaign, troopers across Oklahoma will spend the last two weeks of January focusing on distracted driving violations and issuing tickets or warnings for those violations. The primary goal of this enforcement campaign, according to the patrol, will be educating the public.

Other agencies, including the Pottawatomie County Sheriff's Office, are conducting similar enforcement.

During the campaign, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and Oklahoma Department of Transportation also will use message boards to remind motorists about the dangers of distracted driving. There also will be fliers in welcome centers and rest areas as well.

Trooper Dees was born Jan. 23, 1985, in Fairview. He graduated from Bridge Creek High School in 2003 and Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 2008. Dees, the son of a retired state trooper, was a member of the 61st OHP Academy, graduating in July of 2013. He was assigned to Troop D headquarters in McAlester.

In 2016, the OHP and Oklahoma State Department of Transportation dedicated a portion of I-40 as the Trooper Nicholas Dees Memorial Highway.