Susan Yum never thought she’d be in this position. A former public-relations executive, Yum and her husband, James “Spike” Owen, are currently seeking to enact a law that makes the penalty for cell-phone distracted driving just as serious as drunk driving.
Their activism comes after a December 2011 accident in which their 5-year-old son, Jake, was killed when a driver, on his cell phone, took his eyes off the road and smashed into their car. The driver was found guilty of two minor traffic violations, and his punishment was a total of $1,000 in fines. “Because of the prevalence of cell-phone use in cars, it is not considered a gross deviation of standard behavior,” says Yum, who also has an 11-year-old daughter, Alexandra, whose femur was snapped in the accident. “We want there to be a stern message about how dangerous this distraction is so that the behaviors will change.”
After the trial ended, Yum and Owen, who live in Federal Hill, founded the nonprofit Change for Jake Foundation, and Jake’s Law is its first initiative. Currently, they are having the law drafted and aim to introduce it in the 2014 legislative session, starting this month.
Yum cites a 2013 study by the Cohen Children’s Medical Center, which found that texting while driving is now responsible for more annual teen deaths (3,000) than drinking and driving. While many states (including Maryland) have banned using cell phones while driving, there are only a couple of states that consider it a felony when a fatality is caused by cell-phone distracted driving. “That’s the model we’d like to use,” Yum says. “We’d like it so they can no longer use the defense of calling it a mere accident.”
Right now, Yum is meeting with lawmakers and fundraising with a ZIP-code challenge, aka each ’hood trying to out-fundraise the other. “The fact is, it took 20-30 years for M.A.D.D. to get its message across,” Yum says. “We can’t afford to wait that long.”