Ronnie Polaneczky: Driver's fatal distraction spurs action
WHEN ROB and Patti Pena settled a civil lawsuit against the man who ran a stop sign and killed their toddler, it included a confidentiality agreement forbidding them ever to speak publicly about the driver.
His name is Frederick Poust III. He was dialing his cell phone when he broadsided Patti's car on Nov. 13, 1999, killing the Penas' 2-year-old daughter, Morgan Lee.
So when I met Patti last week, she wasn't able to describe her reaction to the news that Poust, a decade after killing Morgan, had allegedly done it again.
But I think we can imagine.
We can imagine the Penas' horror upon learning that, last month, Poust, 38, allegedly blew through 10 stop signs in Montgomery County and then careened into a turn, striking a Honda Civic and killing passenger Richie Taylor.
At the time, Poust was driving a school bus filled with 45 children. Video cameras on the bus appear to have caught him fiddling with a phone and iPod in the moments before the crash.
He was also exhausted, having just come off an overnight shift at a second job.
So let me say this on behalf of the Pena and the Taylor families: Poust is a menace. Any driver who isn't scared straight after killing a child with a car doesn't deserve to dwell in civilized society, let alone pilot a vehicle through it like a guided missile.
Poust has been charged with one felony count of homicide by vehicle and 46 counts of recklessly endangering other persons - one for each bus passenger and the driver of the Honda. He's also been slapped with 10 counts of running stop signs.
After spending a day locked up, Poust was freed on $150,000 bail. If there's any justice, he'll get convicted and head right back there, for a very long time.
Yesterday, state Reps. Josh Shapiro and Bryan Lentz, along with Montgomery County D.A. Risa Vetri Ferman, announced a change in a PennDOT policy regarding driving records for school-bus-driver applicants.
Starting this fall, school districts will be able to review an applicant's driving history before hiring him or her, thanks to a push by Shapiro et al., in the wake of Poust's latest crash.
Poust's employer, Student Transportation of America Inc., didn't know that his 1999 accident had resulted in a fatality. After Morgan's death, Poust was charged only with "disregarding a traffic control device," a $99.50 offense. So he looked like a decent enough hire.
Once districts have access to an applicant's entire driving record, they may be able to keep guys like Poust from getting behind the wheel of a school bus, putting kids in jeopardy.
But what about the rest of us? Just because a driver isn't playing with his electronic gadgets while driving a bus doesn't mean he's not treating some other vehicle like a funhouse on wheels.
The good news is that a bill forbidding hand-held cell-phone use and texting while driving has just passed the state House, 189-6. It looks likely to pass in the Senate, says Shapiro, one of the bill's sponsors.
"When we started looking at this issue five years ago, we knew a ban made sense from a public-policy point of view, but it hadn't gotten personal yet" so it lacked traction in Harrisburg, says Shapiro.
"Since then, we've gotten so many calls and letters from constituents whose loved ones have been hurt or killed because of distracted driving."
Now, he says, public support of
the ban is overwhelming.
Among the cheerleaders is Patti Pena, who was named a Time magazine "civil crusader" in 2001 for the distracted-driving-awareness work she threw herself into after Morgan's death and continues to champion.
She frets, though, about being pigeonholed as "the grieving mother," even though, most days, her grief is as fresh as it was the day she saw her towheaded little girl covered in blood and glass shards in the backseat of the car.
"There's no desperation like trying to save your baby's life while waiting for the ambulance to get there," Patti says of Morgan, who died the next day of massive head injuries.
Still, she says: "This cause isn't about my grief. My grief is a given; it's neverending. This is about preventing your grief. Because these accidents are 100 percent preventable."
Patti was 29 when Poust roared into her life. She had just quit her job as a day-care director to stay home with Morgan, her only child.
"We have yet to set the standard that says, 'You don't use a hand-held phone behind the wheel,' the same way we now say, 'You don't drink and drive,' " says Patti, who has since had four more children - ages 9, 7, 6 and 2 - and survived a bout with colon cancer.
"I'll never stop working for Morgan," says Patti, who credits her faith with getting her through days that still, 10 years later, are embroidered by grief.
"The energy and love I had for her survives to this day. When people meet me, they say, 'I'll pray for Morgan.' It's sweet, but I tell them, 'Morgan is fine. She's in the arms of God. It's those of us still here who need your prayers.' "
polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.