Michelle Lunsford doesn't hesitate to admit she was in the past guilty of using her cellphone while she was driving.
“In fact, my daughter, Camryn Callaway, was always getting on to me about it, and about what kind of role model I was by texting and driving,” Lunsford said.
However, it took a tragic accident to drive home the dangers of a habit that is all too commonplace on today's highways.
On Feb. 22, 26 days before Camryn’s 18th birthday, she was killed while texting and driving.
“She was coming home from work on I-65 and she had picked up her phone to text her friend about a birthday party that weekend,” Lunsford said. “She took her eyes off the road, looked back up and ran right into the back of a tractor-trailer truck stopped for construction work.
“It takes a split second for an accident to happen," Lunsford said. "You don’t have to be a bad driver to make bad decisions.”
According to the United States Department of Transportation, in 2016, the last full year data is available, 37,461 people were killed in traffic accidents. Of those, 3,450 (9 percent) were distracted-driving deaths.
A recent study by Zendrive, an analytics company, shows that more than 60 percent of people use their phones at least once a day while driving.
“More and more people have cellphones and they are using them more and more,” said Jennifer Smith, the founder and director of the Chicago-based Stop Distractions.org. “They are a way of life. Getting on the cellphone is the first thing some people do in the morning and the last thing they do at night."
And many of those cellphone owners don't stop using their phones when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
“You pull up behind someone at a traffic signal or next to them, they’ll have their head down," said Smith. "They’re not praying; they're texting with their cellphones. We have to get people to stop using cellphones while driving.”
Bob Passmore, assistant vice president of personal lines at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said distracted driving is becoming an “epidemic.”
“This is a nationwide issue and something has to be done,” said Passmore, who is based out of Chicago. “There are tons of distractions for drivers, but the one that seems to be the worse is texting and driving.”
Passmore said 47 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting and driving. He said 16 states have banned talking on cellphones while driving.
Georgia recently passed a law that states a driver cannot hold a cellphone in their hand, or support it with any part of their body.
“You have to use a hands-free device,” Smith said.
She is working with Lunsford on trying to get a similar law passed in Alabama.
Lunsford has reached out to state senators Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and Jim McClendon, R-St. Clair Springs, and state Rep. April Weaver, R-Pelham, about introducing a Hands Free Alabama proposal in the 2019 legislative session.
Rep. John Carson worked with Smith on passing the new law in Georgia. He said since it went into effect in June, fatalities across the state have dropped 10 percent.
“That is the first decrease (in fatalities) of any substantial amount in eight years,” Carson said. “The issue of distracted driving was well covered here by the media and social media. I think people understood (the reason for the new law) and have accepted it.
“It’s working, that’s the beauty of it," Carson said. "It’s saving lives. That was the intent.”
Smith’s mother was killed by a distracted driver 10 years ago in a traffic accident in Illinois. Since that time, she has worked with families across the nation to help them deal with the tragic results that can come from distracted driving.
“I am working with states trying to get new legislation, tougher laws passed,” Smith said. “These laws are working; they are bringing down crashes, and I hope that others states will take notice.”
Alabama has a no texting while driving law. However, law enforcement officers admit it’s hard to enforce.
Florence Police Capt. Ryan Fleming said there are three provisions to the law.
“The public can use the phone (while driving) to make an emergency call, while parked on the shoulder of the road, or as a GPS to find directions,” Fleming said. “When you see someone using their phone, you can’t be sure if they are texting or doing something else that falls into those acceptable areas.”
Fleming said he has pulled people over who appeared to have been texting and driving, “but they were using their GPS for a location.”
He agrees there needs to be stronger laws with stiffer penalties. Currently the fine for texting and driving is $25, plus court costs.
“When you are trying to correct bad behavior, you want to make a lasting impression. Stiffer penalties would do that,” Fleming said.
He said cellphones are an important part of communication, but people must understand why using them while driving is dangerous.
“It has created a monster on the highways,” he said of texting and driving. “We live in a society where we are always in a hurry, always on the go. We are using technology as we go, which can be a deadly mixture.”
Fleming said the Florence Police Department is looking into the possibility of holding some type of public forum to discuss the dangers of distracted driving.
Lunsford is a strong believer that every step should be taken to educate drivers about the dangers.
“There is nothing that will bring my daughter back," she said. "I know that, but I’m hoping that I can save someone from going through the what I have been going through.
“That’s why I’m talking to anyone who will listen," Lunsford said. "I know the consequences of distracted diving.”