The two women walked in for the interview like lifelong friends, hand in hand, speaking softly and comfortably. But Rhonda Perone and Jeannette Nash met in October, their lives crashing together in a highway wreck near Myrtle Beach.
A Jeep crashed head-on into a line of traffic that had stopped for another accident. The women would cite a police report saying the Jeep was going 55 mph; eyewitnesses would later say they saw no brake lights.
Perone and her husband were on a motorcycle. On another was Jeanette Nash's son, John Nash, and his fiancée.
Like the old friends they seemed, Perone and Nash told the story of what happened together, one picking it up where the other would leave off.
"We had gone down for a wedding," Perone said, allowing herself a pained smile. The foursome had gone out to a breakfast full of laughs. They had become good friends through their bike club and had had a wonderful trip from the Triangle down to Myrtle. Back on the road, "blue lights" as Perone would describe them, were stopping traffic just up ahead. Their two motorcycles had come to a stop.
'THE LAST I REMEMBER'
"The last I remember is a wall coming next to me. Then I see my husband standing above me, hollering my name. Our bike got clipped on the saddlebag and we went down but, fortunately..." Perone drifted off. "Our medical issues are nothing compared to everything else," she said.
Jeanette Nash picked it up. "I got a phone call from somebody else in the motor club saying that there was an accident."
She and her husband and their other son left immediately for Myrtle Beach. When they got there, Nash said, they found his injuries were worse than they had been told.
"He had a broken neck and a lot of other internal injuries. He was on a sort of life-support system so when we got there we couldn't talk to him."
Perone went back to the accident. "They put me in the ambulance at first. They thought I might have had a broken hip or an arm or something. They were cutting off my clothes and the two girls from the Jeep were placed in the ambulance with me to get vitals." (Remember, this is the Jeep that had just slammed into her).
"I was a basket case," Perone said. "I don't recall their names. I recall them saying their ages. And I recall them saying what they remembered happening. One of them said she was asleep and woke up as the Jeep flipped. The other one said that she didn't know what was happening because she wasn't paying attention."
Nash said she went to the tow company the next day to see her son's motorcycle and was told the driver of the Jeep was a teenager who had been looking at a map on her phone when the accident happened.
"We're not going to bring John and his fiancée back," Nash said, "but what we want to do is bring awareness to stricter rules about distracted driving. The penalties have to be stricter when death is involved. What this young girl is looking at right now is a misdemeanor."
Perone chimed in. "There were two deaths because you were looking down at your phone when you were supposed to be driving. You had a passenger that should have been awake doing that for you and you need to be off of it."
PUSHING FOR CHANGE
Now, these two new best friends are on a mission to change both policy and practice. They're pushing for a new bill in Washington, D.C. that takes on distracted driving, but they say it's not strong enough. It doesn't include GPS, which Perone and Nash know all too well can be a distraction behind the wheel.
"There should be something more than a slap on the wrist for texting and driving and getting into an accident," Perone said. "There should be something more. And it should be a step just like driving intoxicated. One time you get this; two times you get this."
The two new advocates are also encouraging the use of new technologies that can limit a phone's capacity in the car, from disabling text to tracking functions.
The I-Team found one new technology from Derive Systems that connects to a car's computer and lets the phone take over some functions. The car won't start if the seat belt isn't engaged; the phone won't work when the car is on; and, on roads where the mapping function knows the speed limit, the car can't go too fast.
But Nash says while policy and practice are important, the key is with people.
"It has to start at home," she said. "It has to start with parents. Set an example for the kids. Put the phone down. Don't be distracted by the phone. I think the device will be very helpful. It's a start. But I think it's going to take both parts to really drive the difference."
BY THE NUMBERS
- Distraction-related deaths (3,450 fatalities) - down 2.2%
- Drowsy-driving deaths (803 fatalities) - down 3.5%
- Drunk-driving deaths (10,497 fatalities) - up 1.7%
- Speeding-related deaths (10,111 fatalities) - up 4%
- Unbelted deaths (10,428 fatalities) - up 4.6%
- Motorcyclist deaths (5,286 fatalities - the largest number of motorcyclist fatalities since 2008) - up 5.1%
- Pedestrian deaths (5,987 fatalities - the highest number since 1990) - up 9.0%
- Bicyclist deaths (840 fatalities - the highest number since 1991) - up 1.3%
Source: NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration)