Articles about the careless and dangerous habits of teen drivers often recite numbers and statistics ad nauseum. Quite frankly, such tactics can drive away the very readers for whom they are intended. Today, however, we are talking directly with a young lady who admits to having killed a neighbor when she was distracted by her cell phone when driving. We offer our gratitude to this teen driver, now a college student, whose advice to her peers is worth sharing here, and we send our deep sympathy to the family of the victim.
On February 27, 2018, high school senior OIivia Spencer was at the wheel of a 2008 Dodge Caliber. It was before 6:30 a.m.; the sun wouldn’t rise for another 15 minutes. While glancing down at a navigation app on her cell phone, Olivia crossed two lanes of traffic and ran into a woman we’ll call Shirley McCormack (this name has been changed at Olivia’s request, out of respect for the family of the victim), who was out for a morning walk. Ms. McCormack, a preschool teacher and Spencer family acquaintance, died 10 days later from the injuries she sustained that morning.
Olivia was traumatized by the incident, and she replies deliberately when answering questions about it and the events that followed. Here are her responses to our interview.
MMLF: What can you tell us about the accident? How did it happen? Did something distract you?
Olivia: “The specifics are still difficult for me to put in words. I became distracted when I went to turn the volume on my phone up. I was headed to a clinical (a hands-on educational session) as a part of my Nurse Assistant training, and we were to meet at a new location and I was unsure how to get there. My phone was in my cup holder so I had to look down to use it. In that moment I was distracted and accidentally hit Mrs. McCormack, who I did not see prior to looking down at my phone. It was very foggy and early in the morning and still dark outside. No one else was in the car with me.”
MMLF: What happened immediately afterward?
Olivia: “Again the details are difficult to share, and still replay regularly in my head. I stopped my car and got out to see what happened. I was really freaked out. I called 911 and went to help. Once police and the ambulance showed up, I had to talk to the officers, and they allowed me to call my mother who showed up shortly after; I was less than a mile away from my home. We waited there and waited while the police gathered information.”
MMLF: What have been some of the long-term effects on you and your life?
Olivia: “I still struggle with PTSD, anxiety, and depression resulting from the trauma of this event. I did struggle with dissociation from self for the first year and six months, or so, after the accident. I also am still on probation for a few more months from the results of the accident. I also had to serve some jail time as well.”
MMLF: How have you attempted to encourage other young drivers to avoid distractions?
Olivia: “I have been slowly working on starting a nonprofit with my family to bring awareness to mental health struggles amongst teens and young adults, also focusing on distracted driving awareness. I have done numerous school presentations about distracted driving at high schools (as well as colleges). These talks have been temporarily stopped due to COVID. I still have regular conversations with friends I have at school about my experience, and help encourage them to drive focused.”
MMLF: We heard you took steps to help get legislation passed in Virginia. Can you tell us about that?
Olivia: “Yes, I helped lobby at the General Assembly session in the winter of 2019 I believe, working alongside DRIVE SMART Virginia to get a hands-free (cell phone) Virginia law. This law was not passed in that session but has successfully been passed and officially enforced as of January 2021.
MMLF: Did Virginia change laws or regulations for teen drivers?
Olivia: “As far as I know there are no teen-specific changes. The hands-free law is now in effect and it is illegal to operate a vehicle with a phone/device in your hand in the state of Virginia.” (Editor’s Note: As of this writing, Michigan has not joined the growing number of states that have enacted hands-free legislation. Hands Free Michigan is lobbying to change that situation.)
MMLF: How’s life now? Do you still think about the accident?
Olivia: “I think about the accident daily. More so when I see or hear about other accidents, but I still think about it regularly. Life slowly is getting easier. I have healed a lot over the past three years but I still have a way to go. This will stay with me for life. I am trying to focus the heartbreak I have/do experience into education and prevention of this happening to anyone else. I regularly find myself mourning over the loss the McCormack family has endured.”
MMLF: How is your family doing? Is the incident still impacting them?
Olivia: “Short story, yes. It still impacts them. They were never mad or angry at me, but were sad for me and the McCormack family. My family doesn’t talk about the specifics much, but they have been supportive and continue educating young adults and preventing anything like this from happening to another family, on either side of the event.”
MMLF: Have you had any contact with the McCormack family?
Olivia: “No, I am not against talking to them, but also want to respect their wishes. Out of respect for them I ask that you do not mention them directly, their privacy is important to me.”
MMLF: What effects did this have on your prom, graduation, summer leading up to college, other plans?
Olivia: “Graduation was emotional; I saw Mrs. McCormack’s son graduate and honestly I cried right then and there, knowing this was not an easy day for him as he missed his mom in this major life moment. I think about those big life moments for her family a lot and what they are missing without their mom. I felt a lot of guilt walking across the stage that day. And many others days, even still. Over the summer I was going through court, so those high school/hometown “lasts” were overshadowed a lot. The December between my first two semesters at school I was in jail and missed holidays during that time.”
MMLF: Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
Olivia: “Put the phone down, keep your eyes on the road. It can wait. Anything can wait while you are driving. It is not worth your life, or the life of others at your hands.”
At Mike Morse Law Firm, we see the results of distracted driving incidents firsthand, as we represent the interests of people whose lives have been affected and help them get past their injuries in the best ways possible. We consider it a public service to inform drivers — especially teen drivers — about the damaging effects they can have on the lives of others if they fail to observe laws intended to protect everyone on the road. If you have been injured in a car crash, contact us with any questions. We’re happy to help and the consultation is free.