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October 25, 2014

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state legislature:

Fatal accident solidifies senator’s drive for safety

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Christopher DeVargas

State Sen. Shirley Breeden poses at the U.S. 95-Las Vegas Beltway interchange on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. Breeden authored a new law that bans using handheld cellphones and electronic devices while driving.

Sen. Shirley Breeden

Ed Long, a volunteer and Shirley Breeden supporter, hugs Breeden in September 2008 as they canvass a neighborhood in state Senate District 5 in Henderson. A recently retired school administrator and a political novice, Breeden stresses her experience as a soccer mom and her Launch slideshow »

There was nothing spectacular about the intersection — two busy roads, traffic signals, narrow medians, gas stations on two corners and a pizza joint on another. But what happened here has forever altered one family and has the potential to change state laws.

Just before noon Aug. 4, a Chevy Suburban ran a red light at Charleston and Jones boulevards. It plowed into the side of a Lincoln Town Car making a left turn. The driver of the Suburban, who police said was driving without a license or insurance and was impaired from high doses of unprescribed pharmaceuticals, wasn’t injured. But the driver of the Lincoln was, and her passenger was pronounced dead at the scene.

•••

Most people who advocate for traffic safety laws have personal experiences, and sometimes make emotional appeals to encourage compliance.

Now, state Sen. Shirley Breeden is one of them.

As the author of the new law that banned using handheld cellphones and electronic devices while driving, she has been making the rounds on morning news shows and holding news conferences.

Her speeches are less compelling and emotional than her companion speakers — people such as Jennifer Watkins, who was seriously injured along with her husband when they were hit by a driver using a phone and playing with the radio, and Brian LaVoie, whose 18-year-old daughter, Hillary, died in a rollover crash involving a distracted driver.

Breeden hasn’t said much about her own tragedy — the accident that killed her father and severely injured her mother. It’s still fresh, it happened after the cellphone law passed, and it didn’t involve a phone. But it fits with her other work on transportation issues and may suggest what topics she’ll be interested in next session.

•••

When officers arrived at the Aug. 4 DUI crash, they found Robert Foster dead, four days short of his 83rd birthday. His wife, Geneva, 78, had serious head injuries. Trauma doctors at UMC found four skull fractures and had to install a bolt to relieve the pressure on her damaged brain.

Metro Police said the driver of the Suburban, 29-year-old Jose Gomez, appeared to be impaired and was trying to leave the scene when they arrived.

Breeden was looking for her parents almost six hours later when she got a call from UMC. As soon as she saw the number, she knew they had been in an accident.

Doctors kept Geneva Foster sedated and on a ventilator for nearly a week. She spent two weeks at UMC and 12 days at a rehabilitation center before returning home, where her son lives. Breeden also moved in for three weeks to help. The senator visits every day.

Foster lost her short-term memory and much of her vision and hearing from the head injuries.

“She’s very weak,” Breeden said. Her mom used to read and knit; both are now impossible. “All the things she loves to do, she can’t do. I don’t care whose family it is, you shouldn’t have to go through that.”

Breeden isn’t sure how the medical bills are going to be handled. “Whatever she needs, we’re going to do and I’ll just worry about the rest of it when the time comes,” she said. “I just want my mom to get better.”

•••

Breeden’s father told her not to run for office, but the retired Clark County School District administrator did it anyway.

In the state Senate, her father has been one of her inspirations. “The personal experiences keep driving me,” the Henderson Democrat said.

In March 2009, her dad was infected with the deadly bacterium MRSA at a hospital. Breeden has since pushed for hospitals to be more aggressive in preventing infections and notifying patients about them.

But it wasn’t a personal experience that made her write the cellphone law and vote to strengthen DUI enforcement and seat belt laws.

Erin Breen, director of UNLV’s Safe Community Partnership and one of the state’s primary safety advocates, said Breeden has always supported traffic safety.

“She didn’t need her father to be killed to change her perspective,” Breen said.

Sen. Mark Manendo said: “There’s a handful of public safety advocates in the Legislature. I wish we had more. But Shirley Breeden is a champion.”

Supporting public safety is just common sense, said the 55-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four.

“I’m all for making our world a better place and safer. Society has changed so much; it’s really scary out there, whether it’s guns or people driving under the influence, it’s scary. I have grandkids growing up.”

•••

Click to enlarge photo

Jose Gomez

Gomez was uninjured and doctors quickly cleared him to leave the hospital, but Metro wanted to talk to him first.

In a break room, he admitted to running the red light, claiming his brakes failed. Police said skid marks at the intersection disprove that.

According to the arrest report, he told officers, “The other driver should have swerved out of the way, since he was running the red light and he had no liability.”

He admitted to taking high doses of Xanax, a prescription drug for anxiety, and Lortab, a prescription painkiller, the report says. But he didn’t have a reason for taking the drugs, and didn’t have them legally.

Officers administered six field sobriety tests. Gomez failed them all, but a breath test showed he had no alcohol in his system, police said. Blood and urine samples were taken and Gomez was arrested on two counts of felony driving under the influence of a controlled substance resulting in death or bodily harm.

The exact charges Gomez faces may change as Metro and the district attorney’s office finish preparing the case, but he could face two to 20 years in prison for each DUI charge, officials said.

Breeden has been following his case closely. She’s gone to all of Gomez’s court hearings and is in regular contact with Metro and the DA’s office, all while dealing with the accident’s effects on her family.

But she also has realized that “senseless accidents” affect others — the public who have to pay for emergency responders, other motorists stuck in traffic and even the suspect’s family.

“What about his family?” she asks. “I don’t know anything about his family; I don’t know if he’s a father, but he’s a son. It affects his family, too.”

•••

Last year, 89 of the 257 traffic-related fatalities in the state involved drugs or alcohol, according to preliminary reports. Officials said this year’s numbers will probably be higher, and more of those crashes are the result of drugs — often prescription — instead of just alcohol.

Breeden says she isn’t sure what will happen in the 2013 legislative session — or even if she will be re-elected, noting that people who oppose the cellphone law have made their anger clear in email to her.

It’s too early anyway for her to think through the legal questions her parents’ accident raises. She’s busy taking care of her family.

But when issues such as drunken and drugged driving come up, her father’s memory is sure to influence her actions.

“I lost my dad, and I’m not the only one. It’s not fair,” she tearfully said. “If I can save one life, it’s worth it.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me, it’s not going to happen to me,’ and they don’t understand how it alters your life and shatters your family.”

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  1. As far as I'm concerned, they should ban ALL cell phones from use in a vehicle, driver or passenger!

  2. The law against cell phone use by the driver of the car will pin the burden of responsibility on them. Once an accident happens under those conditions and costs the driver bloody murder, the point will be understood.

  3. News flash: Our freeways were NOT built for people to play Russian Roulette! How many here haven't been at the 15/215 interchange (near McCarran) and witnessed at least a handful of distracted drivers holding and blabbing away on their cell phones while trying to swerve three lanes at once? Thank goodness Senator Breeden was finally able to get this law passed! We already have more than enough danger on our roads. We don't need our streets and freeways to be constant death traps just because a few self-absorbed, distracted drivers want to play Angry Birds while driving.

  4. I can't believe I'm going to type this......but mred is 100% correct!

  5. So lets just outlaw cell phones completely,...ban them and depend only on land lines,...maybe phones with a dial,...yeah thats the ticket!

  6. It should be against the rules to run red lights and against the rules to drive without a license.

    I think it definitely should be not allowed for someone to take drugs without a prescription.

    It should be illegal for someone to drive without registration.

    There should be a rule against driving without insurance.

    We should not allow someone to drive while taking high amounts of drugs.

    Wheelies on the freeway should not be allowed.

  7. The solution is so simple.....ban cars. They cause accidents, kill pedestrians, drunk driving fatalities, contribute to global warming, the list is endless.

  8. When I was a child in Nazi Germany before 1939, the vehicle law forbade playing a car radio while driving. Prior to that, car radios were prohibited from being installed in cars.

    What's my point?

    Can government ever replace responsible human behavior?

  9. Cel phones and other portable electronic devices are easy scapegoats. They certainly are a problem if misused. However, children and other passemgers do a great deal of diversion of a driver's attention.

    Video screens are perfectly legal in a driver's field of vision. A friend of mine was driving a couple months ago when something caught his eye in the car that was on his right. He looked over and saw a movie showing on a TV in the car; a hard core prono movie! Although that is an obviously illegal example, televisions shouldn't be able to be viewed by the driver, yet they are.

    New cars have extremely complex driver control systems that can draw all a driver's attention if they are not fully educated in it's use. Navigaton systems, both built in and removable Garmin type, can draw all a driver's attention, yet are perfectly legal. Radios have screens that flash and crawl the station name, artist and song title. Again, perfectly legal.

    My point is that revenge laws like this rarely are effective, cost more than they save and seem hypocritical when people complain about the size of government, high taxes and then say "there ought to be a law".

  10. The question was asked: "Can government ever replace responsible human behavior?"

    The answer is no. But it can keep some people from being stupid or at least help mitigate the damage done by them. If people chose to do the right thing in the first place we would have no need of enacting laws dictating human behavior.

  11. "-- people such as Jennifer Watkins, who was seriously injured along with her husband when they were hit by a driver using a phone and playing with the radio, and Brian LaVoie, whose 18-year-old daughter, Hillary, died in a rollover crash involving a distracted driver."

    Hansen -- this shows how flimsy the facts compelling this new law are. Although focused on cell phone use, other factors were just as clear and present. How interesting neither you nor Breeden mentioned anything about how the average person's common daily phone use is now an actual crime, a misdemeanor, and all that implies. Or how that group of local judges, without bothering to wait for lawmakers, upped the bail for these misdemeanors to $1,000.

    "dont let the goofs who oppose your bill bother you. they are the jose gomezs' of our society who have no right to be on the highway."

    dipstick -- how exactly do you equate opposition to this stupid law to Gomez's plainly criminal and negligent actions?

    "How many here haven't been at the 15/215 interchange (near McCarran) and witnessed at least a handful of distracted drivers holding and blabbing away on their cell phones while trying to swerve three lanes at once?"

    atdleft -- or fiddling with something on their dash, or eating, or yelling in the rear view mirror at their kids, or trying to keep the mutt in their laps from jumping out the window, or ....? Your post was way too selective.

    "It should be against the rules to run red lights and against the rules to drive without a license....."

    cwcommish -- it already is. Are you really that ignorant or is there some hidden point in your post?

    "Cel phones and other portable electronic devices are easy scapegoats."

    JLOKC -- excellent post! And sure to be showing up in the next legislature. As you can tell from so many ignorant posts here, they will all be sure to have plenty of support. Maybe the state is pushing us all to get off the roads until we're all behind the wheel of one of those new Google robot cars.

    "If people chose to do the right thing in the first place we would have no need of enacting laws dictating human behavior."

    Uhave2laff -- our lawmakers have never had the authority to dictate human behavior unless it's clearly harmful to others. Try reading the Constitutions.

    "This case illustrates that tragic facts make bad law." -- Wyeth v. Levine, 129 S.Ct. 1187 (2009), Justice Alito, with whom The Chief Justice and Justice Scalia join, dissenting.

  12. My state has a law banning using handheld cellphones and electronic devices while driving... it does NOTHING.

    Each day I pass motorists chatting away on the phone. Many weaving on the highway while they text. Our law has been in force for some time and is ignored.

    Yes, if you are driving through a city at secondary road speed on the phone and happen to pass a cop who can clearly see you are breaking the law, you'll get a ticket. Otherwise, there is no way at highway speeds for there to be enough cops to peer into cars moving 70+ MPH to see who is on the phone.

    Enforcement is almost impossible on any effective scale and motorists know it. Sad, but true. Passing the law makes people feel better.. it doesn't change much behavior.

  13. killerB

    you mean I cant run a red light while pulling a wheelie @ 95mph with no lic/ins as I swallow prescription pills that I bought at the bario pharmacy? Really? what if im talking on my cell phone to my lawyer or consulate?

    Youre so smart. thanks for educating me. now go get ur shine box.

  14. A Goodfellas reference from cwcommish....nice.

  15. Her standing on the side of the freeway is a distraction......that should be banned!

  16. If they were serious about increasing revenue from distracted driving they would bring back the blimp over the freeways or the stripper-mobile.

  17. "The biggest problem with the cell phone law is that so far there is no penalty..."

    antigov -- you're not paying attention. It's a misdemeanor, and the local judges rolled out that welcome mat with a cool grand for bail on top of the fine.

    "We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force." - Ayn Rand (1905-1982)