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Our View: Distracted driving enforcement, awareness needed

The Shawnee News-Star

Now through the end of January, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and other local and state law enforcement officers will be putting extra emphasis on the enforcement of distracted driving.

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

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

But while standing outside of their vehicle to investigate that accident, tragedy unfolded.

A distracted driver crashed his vehicle into the scene, striking both troopers.

Trooper Dees died instantly and Trooper Burch suffered serious injuries. Other law enforcement officers working that scene were forever impacted by the events and trauma of that night. The driver of the vehicle was charged and convicted of manslaughter.

And while what happened was a tragedy, it also could have been prevented. Troopers said evidence in the court case showed the distracted driver had sent 69 messages during his time behind the wheel that night before hitting the state troopers.

The trooper's death prompted a new state law that went into effect Nov. 1, 2015 making it unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle while using a handheld electronic communication device to manually compose, send or read an electronic text message while the motor vehicle is in motion.

And while that was needed and was a step in the right direction, despite the law, there are still many accidents occurring each year that involve distracted drivers. The patrol reported more than 8,600 crashes in Oklahoma involved at least one distracted driver in 2019, with those incidents killing 41 people and seriously injuring 240 others.

Education and awareness are critical to help prevent future tragedies, along with driver responsibility. It only takes a split second while driving to take someone's life, yet so many are still taking that risk with phones in hand while driving.

During this campaign, please educate yourself and your friends and family about the dangers of distracted driving. If you've ever texted while driving, think about what could have happened and never take that chance again.

The consequences of sending a text or looking at a social media post while driving aren't worth it. Nothing is more important than someone's life.

Think of Trooper Dees and his family, or the families of many others killed each year because of a distracted driver. If what happened six years ago can educate others about distracted driving and help save lives, then the trooper's legacy of service and public safety lives on.