Victim wants drivers off cellphones

Staff WriterJune 8, 2011 

— Krista Slough doesn't recall the impact of a car that struck her from behind as she walked to a bus stop one morning last September. But Joe Capowski remembers "this grotesque thump" as he watched the accident in front of his house on a narrow side street in Chapel Hill.

The driver was talking on her cellphone.

"She drove straight into Krista like she didn't even see her," said Capowski, a retired UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member. "She did not slow down. She did not swerve to avoid her. Her car hit Krista and knocked her 18 feet off the road."

Slough, 22, who had just started her senior year at UNC-CH, woke up in a UNC Hospitals bed. She suffered brain hemorrhages and other injuries that continue to cause headaches, fatigue, memory loss and other cognitive impairment. She was forced to drop out of school.

Now Slough (rhymes with "plow") and Capowski have joined forces to lobby for a town ordinance that would outlaw phoning while driving on the streets of Chapel Hill.

"My accident is an example of what can happen in Chapel Hill to pedestrians and all the commuters who take the bus or walk to the hospital or the school," Slough said Tuesday.

Slough is healing slowly, undergoing therapy, sleeping 12 hours a day and working a few nights a week as a physical therapy technician. She will return to class this fall with a reduced course load, and her doctors say she should be able to finish her degree in a couple of years.

The driver whose car struck Slough, Kaylie Nicole Gibson of Apex, also was a UNC-CH student. She was charged with failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident.

Partner in her battle

It was just by chance that Slough's life-changing accident was witnessed by Capowski, a former town council member who had spent the past year lobbying town officials and state legislators for a phoning-while-driving ban.

Texting at the wheel is illegal for drivers of all ages in North Carolina, and phone use is illegal for drivers under 18.

In February 2010, the Chapel Hill Town Council put off action on a proposal, championed by Capowski and others, to outlaw phone use for all drivers on local streets. The council decided to wait for action by a legislative committee in Raleigh that was considering whether to strengthen restrictions on drivers' phone use across the state.

The legislature never acted, and town council members dropped the issue.

Slough and Capowski testified this spring before a House committee considering a statewide ban, but the committee has not voted on the measure. Next week, Slough and Capowski will revive the issue at the local level, in a petition to the town council.

"Chapel Hill is a very young town, and young people are wired," Capowski said. "They grew up with cellphones in their ears, and we're having accidents that are being caused by that."

Phone ban gains support

Council member Penny Rich, who backed the proposed ban last year, said she will support it again.

"I still believe we should not be driving and talking on the phone at the same time," Rich said.

Researchers at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center say phone conversations distract drivers' attention from the road around them, impairing drivers' ability as much as a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent - the legal standard for drunken driving.

Like other towns, Chapel Hill sets local speed limits and has some of its own traffic rules, such as a safety helmet requirement for bicycle riders under 16. Ralph Karpinos, the town attorney, told council members last year that they probably had legal authority to enact the phone ban on city-owned streets - and possibly on state-maintained roads inside town limits, too.

Problems persist

Slough's memory problems make it hard to remember names of people, even those she has met several times, or to put sentences together. Sitting on Capowski's front porch, she struggled a bit to name the thing that held flowers on a bench beside her.

"I can't think of the word for pot, for the pan, uh, the flowers, the flowerpot," Slough said. "I can imagine it, but I can't find the words to say it. It's going to be hard for me in school to write papers and things like that you need in college."

She drives only in light, local traffic. And in the past year she has dropped her old habit of using her phone in the car.

"I never had listened to any of the distracted-driving discussion before," Slough said. "Now, obviously, I've changed my mind. It takes just a split second of not paying attention to hit somebody."

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

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