Fatal Distraction

How one family lost their only child to a distracted driver

On a sunny morning in April 2011, Deanna Mauer was stopped in Southern California freeway traffic. Aside from the delay, life was good. At age 23, she had recently graduated from college and was helping to coach a high school girls’ softball team. She was also working at Whole Foods Market, and had just finished an early shift before hitting the road for Los Angeles to take care of a friend’s dogs.

She never got there.

A Toyota slammed into Deanna’s Hyundai from behind. The impact of the crash was so severe that it broke her neck and severed two arteries.

The cause of Deanna’s death? “Our daughter was killed by texting and driving,” says her mother, Dawn Mauer. She now has a tattoo of her daughter’s handprint on her left shoulder so that, she says, “every morning it’s like Deanna has her arm around me.”

Every day, versions of the Mauers’ story play out across the U.S. Nearly 3,500 lives are lost every year to drivers who divert their attention from the road—even for a few seconds. Another 391,000 people are injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

As alarming as the body count may be, the number of potential perpetrators is exponentially higher. More than two in five drivers reported reading text messages or emails while driving in the past 30 days, and nearly one in three drivers admitted to typing text messages or emails while driving, according to the 2016 Traffic Safety Culture Index compiled by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Anecdotal evidence would support those results: Just take a casual visual survey of drivers around you on any given day. Perhaps more sobering is the fact that many of us, if we were honest, have probably sent a text message when we knew we shouldn’t have.

In the Mauer family’s case, a stranger's decision to text had deadly consequences.

“People would never believe you can cry every day for six years, but you can.” —Dawn Mauer

Dawn and Howard Mauer with a photo of their daughter  Deanna

‘In the Blink of an Eye’

Jorene Nicolas of San Diego, now 35, was convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter in Deanna’s death. In the hour leading up to the crash, Nicolas had sent or received 14 messages and received two calls, according to her cell phone provider. She later said she was in a “big hurry” to meet her boyfriend for lunch.

Court documents suggest she was so distracted that she hadn’t realized traffic was at a standstill in front of her. The black box in her Toyota Prius revealed she was traveling 85 mph at the moment of impact. There was no evidence that she had applied the brakes or turned the steering wheel before rear-ending Deanna’s Hyundai, pushing it into the car in front of it, and then the center divider.

After the crash, another driver on the scene pulled Nicolas from the passenger side of her vehicle. Witnesses recounted Nicolas asking that driver to get her cell phone from her car and replying to questions with, “Where is my phone?” Nicolas eventually went to retrieve it herself, and was talking on her phone when a CHP officer arrived.

Nicolas’ conviction took 4-1/2 years and two trials. The first trial ended with a hung jury; the second, a six-year jail sentence. During her sentencing, Nicolas did not admit to texting and driving, just that “everything happened in the blink of an eye,” she told the court in 2015. “Living day to day with the knowledge of what I did and the pain I caused is unbearable.”

But 22 months after she was convicted, the decision was overturned because of an instructional error by the judge, and her punishment was reduced to one year in jail and three years of probation. Nicolas, a mother of a young girl, served 1,404 days (nearly four years) before her release. To avoid a third trial, Nicolas pleaded guilty to all charges.

On the surface, Nicolas’ reckless actions might be easily condemned, but her behavior is all too common. The 2016 Traffic Safety Culture Index revealed “a majority of motorists say texting or talking on the phone while driving is an unacceptable safety hazard, yet a large proportion of those same people also admit to doing it within the previous 30 days,” says Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research.

Distracted driving is probably underreported, Nelson adds, because “most people will not admit they were distracted at the time of the crash.”

A fatality complicates the problem: If the driver dies, “you can’t determine after the fact if somebody was distracted the way you can with somebody who was intoxicated,” Nelson says. As a result, law enforcement has a hard time collecting accurate data about the role of distracted driving in traffic crashes.

The Multitasking Myth

NHTSA defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo or navigation system—anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”

Distractions can be sorted into three categories: visual tasks that require the driver to look away from the roadway to visually obtain information, manual tasks that require the driver to take a hand or hands off the steering wheel to manipulate an object or device, and cognitive tasks that involve thinking about something other than driving.  

While visual and manual forms of distracted driving, like tuning the radio dial, tend to bring higher degrees of risk, those risks tend to be shorter in duration, says AAA’s Nelson. Mental distractions, like having a conversation, come with lower levels of risk, but they take much longer to complete, he says, “so the net impact at the end of the day is that they rival one another for how risky they really are.”

People who text or operate the vehicle’s air-conditioning controls while driving may think they’re multitasking. “The reality is there’s no such thing,” Nelson says. “You’re switching back and forth between driving and doing other things. That’s fine if you’re sitting at your desk at work, but not in a car and driving 70 mph down the road.

“There’s a finite bandwidth with your brain just as there is with your computer or smartphone,” he says. “If you’re trying to do too many things at one time, everything moves more slowly. You’re not processing things as quickly as you need to.”

Of all these distractions, texting is the most dangerous, according to NHTSA. Sending or reading a text typically takes a person’s eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. In addition, the AAA Foundation found that drivers may be mentally distracted for up to 27 seconds after sending a text message—even if they’re using a hands-free system. That’s why it’s unsafe to send a text even at a stoplight

    47 STATES BAN TEXTING WHILE DRIVING FOR ALL DRIVERS.
 
    38 STATES BAN ALL CELL PHONE USE BY NOVICE OR TEEN DRIVERS.
 
    21 STATES (PLUS WASHINGTON, D.C.) BAN ALL CELL PHONE USE BY SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS.
 
    15 STATES (PLUS WASHINGTON, D.C.) BAN USING A HANDHELD CELL PHONE WHILE DRIVING FOR ALL DRIVERS.
 

Limits of the Law

Distracted driving laws vary from state to state. Enforcement is challenging. The laws on the books usually don’t prohibit distracted driving, per se, but the behaviors it may cause—such as speeding, reckless driving, or unsafe lane changes.

California has some of the nation’s strictest laws. The state not only bans texting while driving but also prohibits driving while using handheld cell phones. Whether or not a driver receives a ticket for these behaviors (i.e., texting or using a handheld device), however, “is ultimately up to the officer’s discretion,” says Kevin Tao, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol. Fines vary based on the type and severity of the offense; in California, cell phone violations start at $20 for the first citation and $50 for each subsequent citation.

For Deanna’s parents, a ticket isn’t enough of a deterrent. “I would like to see something more like [for] drunk driving,” says Dawn Mauer. “After the second violation, if you kill somebody, you’re in jail for murder.”

‘No Text Is Worth a Human Life’

In the aftermath of the deadly crash, the Mauers tried to raise awareness about the dangers of texting and driving with a billboard message on California State Route 22 in Garden Grove. It read, Someone texting & driving … killed our daughter. Your text can wait. In loving memory, Deanna Mauer. The Mauers could afford it for only a month.

“People would never believe you can cry every day for six years, but you can,” says Dawn, who felt closure only after Nicolas admitted she was at fault. Dawn held her daughter’s hand until the moment she was wheeled into the hospital elevator to have her organs and skin harvested. (Deanna had enlisted as a donor just one month earlier.)

Today, Deanna’s old bedroom in her mother’s house is filled with photos and framed softball jerseys and greeting cards strangers had left at her grave. “I don’t think people understand the impact,” Dawn says. “Families break up. People never function the same way again. I keep waiting for Deanna to walk through the front door and say, ‘Hi, Mom.’”

Deanna’s father, Howard, refuses to own a cell phone. A decal in the back window of his Chevy Tahoe reads, A person texting while driving killed my daughter. No text is worth a human life! In memory of Deanna D. Mauer (our sunshine).

The decal has drawn a range of reactions. “One driver gave me the finger,” Howard recalls. “But another driver pulled up next to me, honked, patted his heart, and threw his cell phone in the back seat. That was heartwarming. If we can change one life, it's worth it.”

A former car critic for the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, Susan Carpenter is currently an editor with Southern California Public Radio.

From top, photos by Vani Rangachar and Brandon Flint