Texting/driving story hits home

‘It only takes a second,’ EHS community is told

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By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter

Emma Vieira, left, recounts the car crash that injured Debbie Drewniak in 2011 in Colchester during a presentation last week at Essex High School. Drewniak’s sister, Liz Drewniak-Brigante, right, told the story from her family’s point of view. PHOTO | JASON STARR

Emma Vieira, left, recounts the car crash that injured Debbie Drewniak in 2011 in Colchester during a presentation last week at Essex High School. Drewniak’s sister, Liz Drewniak-Brigante, right, told the story from her family’s point of view.
PHOTO | JASON STARR

Members of the Essex High School community came face to face with the consequences of texting while driving last week in a chilling presentation of the Essex Youth Coalition.

In 2011, Emma Vieira hit her Colchester neighbor Debbie Drewniak with the car she was driving, killing Drewniak’s dog and leaving her disabled. A recent graduate of Colchester High School at the time, Vieira was making plans for the evening by texting friends before the crash. Drewniak was with her chocolate lab near the side of the road, checking her mailbox.

The story was relived in detail in a documentary by Werner Herzog called “From One Second to the Next,” which was played at EHS last Wednesday. After the documentary, Vieira and Drewniak’s sister, Liz Drewniak-Brigante, also of Colchester, told the audience in the high school’s Black Box Theater how the incident has changed their lives. They sat together, demonstrating a partnership they have forged as part of a restorative justice program to speak out about the perils of texting while driving.

Other vignettes in the documentary involved multiple fatalities resulting from texting drivers. It was a heavy-hitting film, and coupled with the live testimonies of Vieira and Drewniak-Brigante, it made a strong case for keeping your phone out of your hand while on the road — as Vermont law mandates.

“I wish someone had come to my school and made me aware how dangerous it is,” said Vieira, who spent 30 days in prison, five months on house arrest and remains on probation for a conviction of grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle with injury resulting. “Please make the decision to put your phone away. Just put in on silent and don’t take it out until you reach your destination.”

EHS junior Kammy Wong is part of the school’s Social Action Club. The club is encouraging students to sign an “It Can Wait” pledge to refrain from texting while driving (go to www.itcanwait.com for more about the pledge).

Wong acknowledged that texting while driving is prevalent among EHS students.

“I think there will be change,” she said after watching the documentary and listening to Vieria and Drewniak-Brigante, “I just don’t know how soon.”

Debbie Drewniak has returned to living in the home on River Road where she was struck. She spent eight weeks after the crash recovering from a coma in the hospital. Physical therapy has helped her regain speech and movement, but she remains afflicted by vision problems, pain and a speech impediment.

She has not agreed to meet Vieira, but Drewniak’s sister counts her relationship with Vieira as a significant part of her recovery. Vieira remembers the first time she met with members of the Drewniak family. Restorative justice offers people who have committed crimes a way to repair some of the damage they caused the victims. Vieira met the Drewniak family during a restorative justice conference that was part of her probation.

“Obviously there was a lot of anger and hate toward me, but at the end of the evening, there was a lot of emotion. It was amazing,” she said.

The relationship sparked that day has led Vieira and Drewniak-Brigante to partner on a mission to keep phones out of drivers’ hands. The Community Justice Center in Essex has managed Vieira’s case.

“It takes a lot of courage not only to talk about it, but also to be with someone impacted and talk about it,” said Community Justice Center Director Kate Brayton.

Texting and driving was outlawed in Vermont in 2012. Last October, it became illegal to talk on a phone while driving without hands-free technology.

“If you still text and drive, please don’t do it,” Drewniak-Brigante said. “It only takes a second for your life, your friends’ lives, your families’ lives to be changed.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take for people (to stop),” she added. “They think it’s never going to happen to them, and I think eventually, everyone’s time runs out.”