November 29, 2012 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman: Cellphone use ban sought

After daughter's crash, mom seeks changes to teen driving laws

Kelsey Raffaele holds a “Senior” sign at a pep assembly shortly before she was killed two years ago. (Raffaele family photos)

Because she's the mother of three teenagers, Kelly Rossman, the Lansing public relations strategist, is twisting arms in the Legislature - on behalf of Bonnie Raffaele and "Kelsey's Law."

Because she lost her 17-year-old daughter Kelsey two years ago, Bonnie Raffaele is a mom on a mission. That tragedy has upended her life and will take her from Sault Ste. Marie to Lansing next week, where she will testify in support of a proposed ban on cellphone use for novice drivers.

Her daughter Kelsey, then a senior in high school — vivacious, pretty, big-hearted — misjudged the distance that winter day between her compact car and an oncoming Dodge Durango. Kelsey's last words, to a friend on the other end, were "Oh, sh—t, I'm going to crash." She said that twice, before the line went dead. Her cellphone was later found in the backseat.

A college instructor and full-time schools technology expert, Raffaele has crisscrossed the state speaking to high school students about the dangers of cellphone use while driving. Even her voice mail says; "I'm driving now." The statistics are compelling: nationally, 1.6 million accidents a year involve using cellphones and texting.

In Michigan, a survey of Michigan drivers in March showed that 89 percent believe cellphone users are distracted drivers. A full 70 percent said they'd support — strongly or somewhat — legislation that would ban cellphone use in Michigan. Most say such a law would prevent them from using cellphones while driving.

Raffaele's trying to win passage of "Kelsey's Law," otherwise known as SB756, which passed the state Senate months ago. The bill would allow police to issue $100 tickets for teens who don't yet have full driving privileges in Michigan's graduated license program.

Despite support from law enforcement groups, the bill has been mired in the state House.

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger has, in the past, raised concerns about the need for a cellphone ban that's, in his view, a substitute for common sense.

Raffaele 's daughter did what many of us do. The dangers of texting have been well-advertised.

But the research is nearly as insistent about any use of cellphones.

Young drivers, like Kelsey, are especially vulnerable and likely to make mistakes. They have few ingrained good driving habits, and any distraction can further impede their developing judgment.

"I used to talk on my cellphone while driving," says Raffaele. "I had told Kelsey and Courtney (her twin sister) they could not text and drive. I didn't realize that talking (on a cellphone) was so bad. These kids don't realize the danger."

In one 2009 study of cellphone distraction, researchers measured "inattentional blindness" by monitoring whether pedestrians noticed a clown on a unicycle. Only a quarter of the cellphone users could recall seeing a clown when prompted, and only 8 percent could do so spontaneously.

While the texting ban has been ineffective, an outright ban on cellphone use would enable police officers to pull over young drivers when they're using their phones.

No, a ban won't stop all cellphone use among teenagers. But it will prod young drivers - and perhaps all of us — to abstain from cellphone use while driving. "I will not even look at a phone in the car, and neither will Courtney or my husband," she says.

"Kelsey had her license for only three months. The accident was a classic cellphone distraction," says Raffaele , who has schooled herself in research since Jan. 24, 2010.

Last week, the transportation committee set a hearing date for Dec. 5, raising anew hope for passage this year. As the mother of a 12-year-old fiercely attached to her cellphone, I hope that it passes. With all due respect to Speaker Bolger, the law is often used as a tool to encourage common sense.

(313) 222-2032

Laura Berman’s column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Kelsey with mom Bonnie Raffaele, now lobbying for “Kelsey’s Law,” to ban ...
Kelsey at the beach with her father, Ron Raffaele. She had her license ...
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