Facing a room of teenage drivers, Gina Bagnariol-Benavides told a difficult, devastating story – one in which poor judgment and wholly avoidable circumstances led to a horrific end.
Because of a cellphone.
Nearly a year ago, said Bagnariol-Benavides, a distracted driver killed Bagnariol-Benavides’ sister, Jody Bagnariol, a stepmother of two children, and her good friend, Lis Rudolph, a mother of four. They were stopped on traffic-snarled southbound Interstate 5, outside of Chehalis, when a woman slammed into the back of their car at a freeway speed.
The Washington State Patrol said the 21-year-old driver never put her foot on the brake — the cruise control, set at 76 mph, was still on.
The state patrol concluded, and the victims’ families believe, the driver’s husband was taking “selfies” from the passenger’s seat.
The pain of that dark day – July 16, 2016 – resonates in Bagnariol-Benavides voice as she unfolds her account.
“You never believe that something like this will happen to you,” Bagnariol-Benavides told the group of students attending Auburn Traffic School at City Hall last week. “My sister and her friend should be here today. I shouldn’t be here today, talking to you. I should be out with my sister. But for the senseless decision of two young people on a Saturday afternoon, my sister is never going to dance at her stepdaughter’s wedding. She is never going to play with her future grandchildren.
“Lis’ kids are never going to be able to say, ‘I love you, mom.’ They’re never going to look into the stands at school events and see their mom cheering for them, or have their favorite birthday meal made for them by her.”
To channel their grief, Bagnariol-Benavides and her family joined the prolonged push to expand existing laws and education in the state regarding distracted driving.
That crusade, supported by lawmakers, resulted in the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE) Act. The new legislation, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed on May 16, toughens the state’s decade-old distracted-driving laws, bans virtually all uses of hand-held devices by motorists and gives law enforcement more leeway to crack down and issue heftier fines.
The DUIE Act, which takes effect July 23, is a concentrated response to the state’s mounting death tally from distracted-driving crashes. In 2015 alone, 171 people died in crashes connected to distracted driving in Washington, up 30 percent from the previous year, according to a state report.
Bagnariol-Benavides said the new law is a significant step forward in saving lives, especially for young drivers tempted by cellphones and addicted to technology.
“This new law will change life in Washington state,” she said. “It will make individuals think twice before picking up their phones to reply to a text, send an email, change their Spotify station, check their social media feeds when they’re driving a car. It will make a passenger more likely to say, ‘No, I won’t take your picture while you’re driving 76 mph down the freeway.’ It’s time for this change to happen.”
“You have so much power to afford change in this process,” Bagnariol-Benavides told her young audience. “You won’t get second and third chances, right? You, from the get-go, shouldn’t have a cellphone in your hand… you can get a ticket for it.”
Back to school
Bagnariol-Benavides was among the guest speakers during the Auburn Police Department’s traffic school program for intermediate drivers. The school is part of Auburn Police’s commitment to Target Zero and is supported by the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission and the AT&T It Can Wait Program.
The goal of Target Zero, the Washington State Strategic Highway Safety Plan, is to reduce to zero the number of traffic fatalities and serious injuries on Washington’s roadways by the year 2030.
John Pagel, Target Zero regional director and a retired Kent Police officer, implored teens to use common sense when getting behind the wheel, such as avoiding the impairment of alcohol and drugs, slowing down, wearing their seat belts and putting the cellphone away.
“To get to target zero is all about changing behavior, that’s what we try to do,” Pagel said.
Distracted driving is resulting in “more deaths than we know,” Pagel said, because it is often difficult for police to determine whether a hand-held device precipitated an accident.
No one should suffer a fatality, he reminded his audience.
“In my 29 years I’ve picked up a lot of dead bodies, and it’s really tough,” Pagel said. “I’ve delivered death notifications to children’s parents, knocked on their door and said, ‘I’m sorry, mam, but your son is dead.’ “
Pagel challenged teens to take control of the situation.
“If you can be in a car, and if your driver gets the phone out to text or send a message, take that phone away from them, and one of you will save their life.”
Close to the real deal
In addition to lectures, videos and visual aids, students at traffic school got to go on a virtual-reality trip, using the texting-while-driving-game simulator provided by the AT&T It Can Wait Program. Auburn Police also conducted mock sobriety checks, with students wearing goggles that simulated impairment from alcohol and marijuana.
“It’s an eye-opener, for sure,” said Charles Truscan, 15, a sophomore-to-be at Auburn Mountainview High School, who has been driving since January. “You see all the impairments, the negative effects, and they provided all the numbers.”
Cheyanne Gunder, 15, came away from traffic school with a better grasp of what it means to be a responsible driver.
“This will help kids understand that is more important to pay attention to your surroundings,” she said.