I’ve driven pickup trucks for most of the last 20 years. During that time, unless the situation has necessitated it — such as driving on Fort Stewart and other federal installations — I haven’t bothered to buckle up all the time.
Now, it’s a state law, so the seat belt is secured around me at all times when I’m behind the wheel. If I had any doubts about it before, I had none after discussing new traffic laws with Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie.
The new laws on banning teenagers from using their cell phones for any reason while driving is an overdue measure. So is the law proscribing texting while driving. As many drivers, and the number of young drivers, on Effingham’s roads, such moves to make those roads safer are welcome indeed.
“Multi-tasking is not a good thing to be doing behind the wheel of a car,” the sheriff said. “You multi-task behind a computer screen.”
Enforcing the new laws may be problematic. Law enforcement authorities will be asked to tell if someone driving and talking on their phone is not of age to do so legally. But any measure designed to cut down on the distractions for a driver is well worth it.
Sheriff McDuffie knows full well how much a motorist needs to pay attention to what’s going on around him on the road, and it’s an episode from long before he became a lawman.
He used to ride home from school with another young man. For some reason, McDuffie didn’t ride home one day with Philip. Philip drove on home alone.
Philip never saw the train that hit his car and killed him. He was going the same way he and young Jimmy McDuffie went every day.
“Any other day I would have been in that car with him,” the sheriff said. “For some reason, I didn’t ride with him that day, and he died. That gets your attention; that makes you think. I guess God had something better for me to do.”
While the state is taking steps to curtail the distractions for drivers behind the wheel — and those steps are overdue — it’s also past time to take driving under the influence seriously and to make sure teenage drivers don’t have the keys in their hands if they have been drinking.
Most officers and deputies would rather have someone who’s been drinking too much call them for assistance rather than get behind the wheel and attempt to drive home, or wherever, themselves. But fighting the problem of teen drinking and driving is going to take some help.
“It’s going to take the young people to take responsibility to help police their own,” Sheriff McDuffie said. “We can’t be everywhere all the time and stop every young person that’s drinking and every person that’s texting in a car. You’ve got to have someone on the scene saying, ‘uh-uh.’”
We also need to get more serious about drinking and driving. Law enforcement is serious. It’s a matter of utmost importance to them, and it should be to everyone.
The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety has used the tale of Chris Sandy as part of its efforts to thwart drinking and driving. Sandy makes his presentations to high school students and other groups — complete in his prison jumpsuit and handcuffs. He’s serving a 30-year term, 13 behind bars and 17 on probation.
Sandy was 22 years old when on an April 2000 night he left a party and in his car, reached 77 mph on a road with a 45 mph limit. He hit another car attempting to turn left. The impact killed the elderly couple in the other vehicle as it tore their vehicle in half.
Part of his sentence is to give talks on his mistake of getting behind the wheel after having been drinking and the price he’s paying because of it.
Said Sheriff McDuffie: “If you listen to what he’s got to say, it’ll send cold chills through you. He had the world by the tail, and boom, in the flash of an eye, his whole life is ruined and two people are no longer here and a whole family is ruined. He lost all his early adult life.”
We have a tall task combating teen drinking. Maybe we can stop kids — and anyone of any age — from drinking and driving.
The sheriff is also a stickler for seat belt use. On his first day as a deputy in Effingham County, he worked two traffic accidents, both involving fatalities and both involving drivers who didn’t use their seat belt.
After I finished talking with the sheriff in his office and got in my pickup, I buckled my seat belt.
It’s a habit I won’t be breaking anytime soon.