Heather Lerch was texting a friend as she drove home on Littlerock Road south of Olympia. The 19-year-old Tumwater High School grad had made the drive countless times before.
She suddenly lost control of her Chevrolet Cobalt at a bend in the road. The car fishtailed and crashed into a guardrail at 60 miles per hour. The crash caved in the driver’s side door more than 2 feet and pushed her into the passenger seat.
After noticing Lerch had not returned from work, her parents went out to find her. They came upon the crash scene, which was about 2 miles from home.
A Washington State Patrol trooper told them plainly: “She’s dead.”
Just before the fatal crash, Lerch had been sending and receiving text messages including this one: “Hey you and I need to hang sometime ; -)”
Distractions — such as a driver texting behind the wheel — are a factor in 30 percent of fatal crashes in Washington, according to the state’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan, called Target Zero, which primarily is aimed at reducing the number of traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030.
The risk of a crash is more than three times greater when a driver is talking on a phone and 23 times greater when “entering information into a phone,” according to the plan.
Using a smartphone while driving is considered not just a visual distraction, but a cognitive distraction that’s different from eating a burrito or applying makeup while driving, for example.
The program cites research by AAA that shows mental distraction from using a phone can last 27 seconds after the driver puts down the phone and again focuses on the road.
According to the commission’s latest data, the number of fatal crashes caused by distracted driving has steadily increased over the years with 111 in 2012; 116 in 2013; 123 in 2014; and 157 in 2015.
The recent survey observed 22,322 vehicles at intersections across 23 counties in May 2016. Among the findings:
▪ An average of 9.2 percent of all drivers in Washington are driving while distracted.
That breaks down to about 6.9 percent of drivers being distracted by their phones and about 2.3 percent distracted by another behavior such as eating, tuning the radio or tending to children and pets.
▪ Kitsap County had the highest rate of distracted drivers at 20.5 percent, while Cowlitz County had the lowest distraction rate at 3.6 percent.
▪ Pierce County’s distraction rate was reported at 18.4 percent. King County’s rate ended up slightly above state average at 9.7 percent; Thurston County’s rate was about 9 percent.
▪ Drivers at stoplights showed a higher rate of distraction because drivers must wait for a cue from the signal, as opposed to taking immediate action at an intersection controlled by a stop sign or yield sign where there’s a shorter wait time before moving through.
Distracted driving-related crashes involving phones are difficult to measure and likely underreported, said Angie Ward, program manager for the Traffic Safety Commission.
“There’s a lot of shame behind cellphone use,” she said, noting that people are less likely to admit that information in a crash report. “We all know we shouldn’t be doing it, but many of us still choose to do it.”
Although there’s a lack of data right now, Ward said the commission is “convinced that distraction is a big part of our congestion problem.”
Two bills related to distracted driving are still alive in the Legislature.
House Bill 1371 and Senate Bill 5289 would make it illegal for people to hold electronic devices such as phones and tablets while driving on a public roadway. Under the proposed law, violators would face a $136 penalty for the first offense with the amount doubling for subsequent offenses.
The state’s original “hands-free” law was passed in 2007. In 2010, another law was passed to allow officers to pull over a driver solely for texting or using a hand-held device.
Heather Lerch died Feb. 23, 2010.
“It’s been seven years, but it still hits me every day,” said her mother, Wendy McQuaid, who now lives in Montesano. “It’s the worst thing in the world to lose your child. It changes your whole life.”
In the years since her daughter’s death, McQuaid has shared her experience with parents and high school students. She hopes her story serves as a warning that saves lives.
But during her commute to Olympia, for example, she is frustrated by the constant sight of drivers who divide their attention between the road and whatever is on their smartphones.
McQuaid also is skeptical of the effectiveness of the state’s distracted driving law in curbing such behavior.
“I wish people would just understand,” she said. “These people have to stop and think: Is this worth my life?”
Law enforcement agencies across the state will participate in a special emphasis patrol through April 16 looking for drivers using their cellphones. The minimum fine for a violation is $136, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
In Pierce County, participating agencies include the Sheriff’s Department and police departments in Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Fircrest, Lakewood, University Place, Ruston, Puyallup, Fife, Bonney Lake and Sumner.