Two can't stop phoning while driving

Daughter racks up 3 wrecks in 3 years

Staff WriterJanuary 24, 2010 

  • In North Carolina, it's against the law to:

    Use a phone to read or send e-mail or text messages while driving.

    Talk on a cell phone while driving, if you're under 18 years old. Exceptions are allowed for emergencies, and for talking with parents.

    Talk on a cell phone while driving a school bus.

    Look at a computer or video screen while driving. Exceptions include GPS units and most vehicle display screens.

    In recent years, the legislature has balked at proposals to:

    Ban use of cell phones and some other kinds of technology for all drivers.

    Make phone use an aggravating factor when drivers are charged with traffic violations.

    Require police and the DMV to include information about phone use in crash reports.

Like father, like daughter - only more so.

Tyler Strandberg of Rocky Mount has a hard time getting her mind off her BlackBerry when she drives.

She has crashed three cars in the past three years.

Each time, she was distracted from her driving because she was typing text messages or talking on the phone.

"Sometimes I will zone out and forget I'm driving," said Tyler, 23. "If I'm on the phone talking about something that takes up all my focus, I'm looking straight ahead - but not even seeing what's there."

Her dad, Buckley Strandberg, worries that she will never curb her dangerous habit.

But Buckley, an insurance executive, confesses his own weakness for Blackberry and Bluetooth. He feels compelled to conduct business by phone and e-mail on long, lonely drives between his offices in Rocky Mount and Nags Head.

"That's more than two hours," said Buckley, 49. "I'm not just going to sit there in the car. I get a lot of work done on that straight, dead stretch of U.S. 64.

"And if I run off the road, there are rumble strips that divert me back onto the road. That has happened occasionally. They seem to work, those rumble strips."

Buckley and Tyler Strandberg contacted The News & Observer to come clean about a problem they share with each other - and with a lot of us. They expressed embarrassment but spoke candidly about how they rely on their phones when they drive, and how they try to reduce their risks.

As many as 60 percent of drivers use their phones occasionally, researchers say, and 11 percent are on the phone at any one time. Cell phone use is a deadly distraction that causes as many as 28 percent of all traffic crashes, the National Safety Council says.

Readers share alarming stories about other drivers who swerve in traffic while clasping phones to their ears or gazing at little text screens:

"I saw her on her cell phone as she sped through the red light," said Nancy McGrew, 77, of Garner, describing a driver who "banged into the back of our truck."

"The driver never even put on her brakes," said Janet Giannattasio, 66, of Raleigh. "She got out of her car, still on her cell phone. She told whoever was on the other end, 'I just hit somebody.' My daughter and I still have problems from the whiplash injuries."

Distracted at wheel

Tyler Strandberg graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill last May and is spending a couple of years in Wyoming. She has had three crashes while phoning or texting

The first was in 2007 on U.S. 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham. She was texting, didn't see traffic slowing in front of her, and ran into a truck. There were no injuries, she says.

Then she totaled two cars within two months.

In February 2008, she was lost on Raleigh's 540 Outer Loop, overdue for a family dinner. She and her father argued on the phone as she drove, and she couldn't understand his directions to the Raleigh restaurant.

"I was mad, lost and late. It was sleeting, and I was really stressed out," Tyler said. She hit an icy patch and spun into a green exit sign, smashing her Nissan Xterra.

"It was pretty scary being on the phone with her and hearing her going through the accident," Buckley said. "She was screaming."

Five weeks later, in March, Tyler was on U.S. 64 near Rocky Mount, driving home for Easter break. She had borrowed her grandfather's VW Beetle. Buckley says she was texting her sister to let her know she'd be there soon.

"There was a wreck up ahead, and I didn't see the other cars slow down," Tyler said. "I looked up at some point." She rear-ended another car.

"A lot of times I feel like I can just look at my phone for one second, but that one second can be enough," Tyler said. "There can be something in front of me that one second that I don't see."

That happens a lot when drivers are distracted by their phones.

"It's the kind of impairment you get with alcohol," said Rob Foss, a senior researcher at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. "Your brain is not really on your driving like it needs to be. But you don't realize that until it's too late."

Texting has become "an unconscious obsession almost ... with my whole generation," Tyler said.

The urge to reach out

"I get the urge to be in touch with somebody when I'm alone. If my phone's nearby, I'm going to pick it up and be looking at it."

She frequently tucks the BlackBerry into her purse and puts the purse in her back seat, out of reach. She says she stays off the phone when she has passengers. But her dad remembers an exception when he visited her last summer in Jackson Hole.

"I said, 'What are you doing? Haven't you learned anything?'" Buckley said.

When Tyler gets bored she uses her phone to surf the Internet and read the news online. She sounds like her father when she explains an urge to multitask:

"I'm reading the news, and I guess that's doing something. I look at driving long distance as a time to get things done."

When Tyler's father hears that she reads the news as she drives, he gives a little whistle.

"That's pretty scary," Buckley said. "Although I have done it myself."

But he still reads his news the old way, in print. Sometimes he takes his morning newspaper on a drive and grips it between his thumbs, on the steering wheel.

"Here I am preaching to my children - but they have been in the car and witnessed me doing exactly what I'm telling them not to do. So that's a problem," Buckley said.

"And yet it's so hard to pull myself away from doing it. Because it's a fast-paced, get-it-all-done society. Work, work, work, 24-7."

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bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527