South Windsor resident crusades against distracted driving
By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
South Windsor - posted Wed., Nov. 20, 2013
Carl Werkhoven is a man on a mission. To date, he says he’s logged over 143 hours standing at five different heavily-traveled intersections in town pleading with drivers to put down their cell phones when driving, to stop texting, and to keep their eyes and minds on the road. If he had his way, every business that employs drivers would insist their drivers not use cell phones or other distracting technology when driving and put signs on the backs of their vehicles reminding others to do the same.
Werkhoven doesn’t stop there. He wants to see the current laws against using hand held cell phones enforced more strictly, and he’d like to see the penalties throughout Connecticut and someday the nation to be heavier, starting with a $1,000 fine for a first time offense and an automatic loss of license for two years for a second offense.
If Werkhoven comes on strong, he has good reason. Four years ago in August, he was driving his motorcycle and was hit by a car at the intersection of Sullivan Avenue and Pierce Road. He lost a leg in the accident, and says the woman who hit him was a distracted driver.
On Sunday, Nov. 17, he was stationed near the gazebo on the green near the Stop & Shop Plaza on Ellington Road. Several temporary signs urging people to put down their phones and to obey traffic laws lined Ellington Road, and still more were set up on the green facing inward at shoppers in the plaza.
“People tell me to mind my own business. They flip me off or laugh when they drive by. I don’t care,” said Werkhoven. “We all have a stake in this, from the moment you leave the hospital as a newborn and are strapped into that little chair, you’re at risk from someone not paying attention to the road,” he said. “I count at least one hundred people a day on cell phones and anywhere from six to fifteen [people] texting while driving, and that’s without even trying. I see people not stopping at stop signs and running red lights too.”
Werkhoven said he feels the local police don’t like what he’s doing, and only stop by to question him as to whether he has permission to be on whatever property he is at on a given day. He said he’d be pleased if an officer or someone on the fire department would come and stand with him now and then. “I would never be someplace I don’t have permission to be. I’m out here to show people the truth, and a lot of people don’t like to see it,” he said.
South Windsor Police Department Public Information Officer Lt. Scott Custer took a different view of Werkhoven’s assessment. “We applaud his education effort," he said, "but like everything else, our officers have to try to balance their activities; and distracted driving is just one of many, many laws we have to enforce. We try to make school bus stops a priority, and we also respond to every medical call in town. Every demographic has its hot button issues,” he said. “We have only one person in our three-person traffic unit, so we don’t have the luxury of being able to send an officer out to spend time with him.”
Custer said the SWPD has ticketed for 1,001 infractions so far this year, with 123 of them for cell phone use. He said this time of year officers start to see more inebriated drivers, and the state police are continuing to look at speeding issues around town. “We’re spread thin with all we do,” he said.
Besides his vigils, Werkhoven has also become a familiar face at Town Council meetings, where he is not shy about getting his message out. He must have made an impression because on a recent Saturday he said South Windsor’s new mayor, Dr. Saud Anwar, came out to stand with him. “He gave me a hug when I really needed one,” said Werkhoven, adding that he also wants to get into local schools to talk to kids who are just getting their licenses. “I’ll bring my four best friends with me, my crutches, my cane, my walker, and my wheelchair,” he said.
Werkhoven said he knows getting people to change will be a lot of work, but as this is now his full time job, he’s willing to put in the time. “Getting a license is a privilege, a gift, and people can’t take it for granted,” he said. “It can all boil down to a license to kill, if you don’t do the right thing. I want people to know that every vehicle is a loaded weapon, every driver the trigger. Ignorance kills,” he said.