Father brings safe-driving message to students at school of daughter killed in crash

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William Havens had every reason not to listen to the guest speakers at his high school yesterday.

A teacher repeatedly shushed the students sitting behind him because they were too busy talking to pay attention.

Another boy a couple of seats away kept nodding off, and a nearby school employee scrolled through Facebook on her cellphone even as the grim statistics about distracted driving and teenager deaths flashed behind the stage.

Yet Havens stayed focused. Along with the other 670 students at Eastland Career Center in Groveport, he sat through the National Teen Driver Safety Week assembly. He sat through the stories about how you shouldn’t eat while driving, how you shouldn’t text while driving, how you shouldn’t goof around in a car with your friends.

But when the lights dimmed and a photo of Sydnee Williams popped up on a giant screen, stuff got real.

Havens, a senior who doesn’t yet have his driver’s license, leaned forward and rested on the back of the chair in front of him. He hadn’t known Williams personally, but he had heard of her. She was a student at Eastland when she died a year ago this week.

Williams, 17, glanced at her phone to read an incoming text and her Honda Civic veered off Rt. 161 in Licking County and rolled. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt and was thrown from the car. Another friend in the back, not buckled in properly, has permanent, serious medical problems now. The front-seat passenger was belted in; he walked away physically unharmed.

Their story had an impact yesterday.

“It changed me,” said Havens, who said when he’s riding in a car he tries to hold the driver’s phone and check it for texts if necessary. He said now he always will wear his seat belt. “I won’t forget today.”

In 2012 in Ohio, 155 teenagers died in crashes involving teen drivers — enough to fill three school buses. Two-thirds of those who died were passengers. Authorities continually point to distracted driving as a cause.

Last week, with the help of Williams’ family, a bill was introduced in the Ohio House that would make texting and driving a primary offense for anyone — meaning police could pull over and cite drivers for only that. Currently, it’s a primary offense only for teenage drivers.

The school assembly yesterday was sponsored by Impact Teen Drivers, a national advocacy group that works to prevent teens from dying in crashes.

Heidi Deane, the organization’s educational-outreach coordinator, told the students to take personal responsibility for their behavior but also to speak up if someone else’s dangerous driving scares them.

“You guys have been strapped into car seats like you’re going to the moon since you were babies. You know to wear your seat belt,” Deane told them. “But you get caught up in the emotion of the moment. You get caught up in the fun and you get distracted. And then you don’t. And what happened to Sydnee can happen to anyone.”

Williams’ family and friends were in the audience, and her father begged the students to listen to the message.

“She didn’t have to die,” Brock Dietrich said. “Do the right thing. Make the right choices. I want you to think of Sydnee when you get in a car.”

After the assembly was over, Nickolas Francis didn’t even try to hide his tears. A senior now, Francis and Williams had been friends since second grade.

Since she died, he’s tried to change his behavior. He wears his seat belt all the time, even if going a short distance. He said he slips up sometimes but, for the most part, keeps his phone out of reach.

It’s been a year and the loss of his friend is still just as painful as it was the day she died. He said he doesn’t know how to get other people to understand that distracted driving really does kill, that it can happen to anyone, that the damage the deaths leave behind for others isn’t reversible.

He, too, had some kids sitting behind him who weren’t paying much attention yesterday. That made him angry.

“I wanted to turn around and tell them to stop. I wanted to tell them to listen,” he said. “It’s their loss — for real, I guess — if they never learn.”

hzachariah@dispatch.com

@hollyzachariah

The Columbus Dispatch