After son's death, father lobbies for ban on texting drivers
Two months after a young driver hit and killed his son, Robert Okerblom still couldn't understand how the driver didn't seen him riding his bicycle – until he checked the phone records.
"It was a clear day. There were no obstructions. It was a straight country road," the California resident said. "We subpoenaed the phone records and found she had been texting."
Okerblom spoke Monday at the Arizona State Capitol in support of two bills that would ban text messaging behind the wheel.
A bill authored by Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, would prohibit all drivers from texting while operating a vehicle. That measure was headed to the Senate floor.
Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, authored a bill that would ban minors from using cell phones for any purpose while driving on a highway. That measure was held in committee.
Previous bills calling for bans on texting while driving have failed, but Okerblom said he hopes his story will help lawmakers put politics aside.
"[People] have the belief that their texting is an innocent thing and they won't get into trouble," said Okerblom, who spoke at a news conference organized by Farley. "I think the whole country needs to come further with regulating this behavior."
Eric Okerblom, 19, had hoped to join the university cycling team during his sophomore year at University of California, Berkeley, his father said.
On July 25, 2009, he went for a ride by himself near his home in Guadalupe, Calif. Just before 7 p.m., he was hit and killed by a teen driver.
"He was the type of person you'd want your daughter to marry. The type of person you'd want for a friend," Okerblom said. "When they die, it's agony. And it doesn't go away."
In memory of his son, Robert Okerblom, 55, started the Eric Okerblom Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for distracted-driver laws and organized a memorial cross-country bicycle trip from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., that began last month.
His route passes through states with little or no regulation, including Arizona.
"You just can't go back and keep living the same way," Okerblom said. "So I'm banging on doors."
Melvin's bill, SB 1538, also known as the No Texting While Driving Act, would prohibit all drivers from writing or reading messages on cell phones while operating vehicles. The bill makes exceptions for those who are dialing phone numbers or in vehicles parked out of traffic.
Violators would face a $50 fine that jumps to $200 if they are involved in an accident while text messaging.
Farley's measure, HB 2426, would ban minors from using cell phones for any purpose while driving on a highway. The bill was held in the House Transportation Committee, but Farley said Monday that it could come back as an amendment or strike-everything bill.
"We're looking for our opportunities," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of support on both sides of the aisle."
Arizona lawmakers have considered regulation since 2007, when Farley first introduced legislation to ban texting while driving.
Since then, 30 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving for all drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The city of Phoenix also passed a ban in 2007.
The closest Arizona has come to a law against texting was last session, when a bill authored by Melvin won Senate approval but was held in the House.
Okerblom said he agrees that people need the freedom to make stupid decisions but said that freedom shouldn't extend to public roads.
"They don't have a right to kill my family members," he said. "The roads are our public domains. We need to be safe there."