GREENVILLE — Debbie Wanninkhof came to St. John Lutheran Church last week to speak about the dangers of texting and driving.
Debbie’s son, Patrick Wanninkhof, a teacher living in New York City, was only 25 years old when he was struck and killed by a woman who was texting while driving. Patrick was biking across country, taking part in a fundraiser for Bike and Build, a nonprofit that raises money for sustainable housing.
As a result, Wanninkhof now travels to high schools, colleges, churches, and community centers in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere, trying to bring awareness to what she calls the “epidemic” of distracted driving.
“Maybe you don’t even think about it,” Wanninkhof said. “Maybe you’re not even aware you’re doing it. But responding immediately to cell phone notifications, even while driving, is a kind of addiction, and just like a drug addiction, it can be deadly.”
She asked audience members to close their eyes and slowly count to five – One Mississippi, Two Mississippi – then to imagine that they’d been barreling down a crowded interstate highway while doing so.
“Most people look away from the road for five seconds when they check their phone,” Wanninkhof said. “At 55 miles per hour, you’ll have driven the length of a football field in that time, as if blindfolded.”
Wanninkhof’s son was killed after being struck by a distracted driver; a friend who was traveling with him survived, according to Wanninkhof, but has undergone 12 surgeries since.
“This collision was not an accident,” Wanninkhof said. “It was a senseless, selfish act.”
Distracted driving leads to millions of collisions a year, she said, and many do it because they’ve done so successfully in the past without consequence.
“Sometimes you look down and nothing happens,” Wanninkhof said. “And then nothing happens the next time. And then tragedy strikes.”
Wanninkhof stressed that Ohio is one of only four states in which police may cite someone for looking at their cell phone while driving, but only after pulling them over for another infraction. She urged listeners to let their conscience be their guide when it comes to this sort of behavior.
“Imagine if someone you love were killed by a distracted driver,” she said. “Imagine if you killed someone, the guilt you would feel. Imagine the pain your family would feel if you were killed.”
Wanninkhof showed a number of videos throughout her presentation, including tributes created by Patrick’s students and fellow Bike and Build volunteers. She also showed a clip telling the story of a young girl who was a victim of distracted driving; as a result, the tear ducts in both her eyes have been damaged, leaving her unable to make tears, and she must take medication each night in order to get to sleep.
Wanninkhof also handed out yellow socks to the audience, encouraging each person to “sock away” their phone while driving. In closing, she underlined her message that texting while driving is not worth the risk.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” Wanninkhof said. “Keep your hands on the wheel. Pull off the road if you need to use your phone. It may be an inconvenience, but it’s worth saving someone’s life.”
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