BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – April 1, 2013, began as just another night of shrimping for Jeff VanReenen. Set up on the Eau Gallie Causeway just before midnight, VanReenen recently told News 6 he remembered some of the things about that evening, but not all of it.
“I moved from the west end of the bridge more up towards the middle, just talking to one of the regular shrimpers,” he said. “Then the next thing I knew, they were asking me at 4 a.m. if I knew where I was.”
VanReenen was in an emergency room.
“I guess I got spit out from under the truck, both of us did, and thrown into the wall. Got set on fire. Thrown into the concrete wall. Stuff like that.”
Jeff VanReenen and 24-year-old Garrett Viccaro were both run over by a driver who would later tell police his SUV drifted from the roadway as he looked at his phone to check a text message. A third man, 25-year-old Justin Mitchell, was also hit and thrown into the Indian River.
Viccaro and Mitchell died at the scene. The three men had all been fishing on the unprotected north shoulder of the bridge when they were run down.
“I think I was numb for a few days,” Marie VanReenen recently told News 6. “It took a couple of days for it to actually sink in that my son was still safe but two men had died.”
Jeff’s mother told News 6 he wouldn’t let the hospital call the family until 8 o’clock in the morning because he didn’t want to wake anyone up. When a nurse did finally reach Marie VanReenen, she said she didn’t have any details, only that Jeff was at the hospital.
On her way to Holmes Regional Medical Center, Marie saw TV trucks lined up on the Causeway and started to put two and two together. She pulled over and asked a news crew what happened. When she said her name, someone said her son was the lucky one and told her the details. She collapsed at the scene.
Florida’s $30 Fine
Marie VanReenen says in an always-connected world, people simply can’t put down their cellphones: “Texting and driving. It’s just become a habit to them and that’s just the way their life is right now,” she told News 6.
Though she holds no grudge against the driver who caused the accident, Marie says part of the problem is the system.
“The fine is too minimal for something as serious as someone getting hurt, paralyzed, injured for life, or dead.”
The penalty Marie is referring to is just $30. That's the first-time fine in the state if you are caught texting and driving. That penalty went into effect October 1, 2013, six months after Jeff’s accident. Even more disheartening however, is the fact that a ticket can only be written if a police officer witnesses a driver break another law, such as speeding, running a red light or making an unsafe lane change.
“We call that secondary enforcement. It’s not a primary offense,” says State Senator Thad Altman (R-Rockledge). “It’s legal if you’re doing everything else legal. It can only be enforced if you’re violating another law.”
Altman, an advocate for safer-driving laws, agrees with Marie VanReenen that some people just can’t put their phones away, especially while trying to control something as dangerous as a moving vehicle.
“You can’t get a millennial to call you back. They do everything by text,” he said. “And it’s sort of an addiction. In the car it doesn’t stop.”
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in 2014, 3,179 people were killed in the United States and 431,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers. At any given moment during daylight hours, the NHTSA estimates approximately 660,000 people are driving and using their cellphones.
Altman is for zero-tolerance: “Texting – there’s no, no reason why anyone should be texting anytime while driving a vehicle.” He adds, “Texting is the very worst form of distraction, because you’re literally taking your eye off the road to read a text or to type a text.”
“Wait till you get to where you’re going,” Jeff VanReenen says. “It killed two people, it almost killed me.”
And Marie VanReenen’s advice?
“Stop! You could kill someone and ruin your life at the same time.”