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Article updated: 12/26/2011 6:06 AM

Why one mom fights to end distracted driving

Adam Miller was 5 when he was killed by a distracted driver in 2008. A sign commemorating his life and warning motorists to drive safely was erected at the crash site in Naperville this summer.

Adam Miller was 5 when he was killed by a distracted driver in 2008. A sign commemorating his life and warning motorists to drive safely was erected at the crash site in Naperville this summer.

 

courtesy of the Miller family

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It was one of those deceptive April evenings when the raw temperatures belied the fact it was spring. But Adam Miller was not bothered.

He passed the lonely minutes in the T-ball outfield commenting on cloud shapes and seagulls for his teammates. As always, he stood on his tiptoes. After the chilly game's finish, he devoured Popsicles.

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The crowded skies

About 2.7 million fliers will sweep through O'Hare and Midway International Airports this holiday season. The Chicago Department of Aviation anticipates O'Hare's busiest day was Dec. 22 with 202,600 passengers while Midway was bursting at the seams on Dec. 23 with 65,700 travelers. The holiday season is defined as Dec. 21 through Jan. 1.

"He was always hot, he was never cold," mom Cheryl Miller said. "He refused to wear a winter coat until there was snow on the ground."

At 5, he adored his toddler brother, Eli, and would wonder aloud why certain friends didn't have baby brothers.

Adam's favorite holiday was Hanukkah and he was "so proud when he could light the candles himself."

But when it came to Rosh Hashana, Adam pleaded to attend kindergarten at Bolingbrook's Builta Elementary School instead of services. "He wanted to be a teacher," Miller said. She added the Builta Badgers' pride song to her bedtime lullabies at Adam's insistence.

Instead of riding his bike, Adam was more interested in seeing how it worked.

And, when pupils "voted" in the 2008 presidential election, Adam couldn't say which candidate he'd picked. He just voted for the one with the nicest smile.

A distracted driver killed Adam in November 2008, after his father, John, pulled over to the shoulder on Naperville/Plainfield Road in Naperville with a flat tire.

The driver told police he'd reached down to pick up a cigar. In that instant, his vehicle slammed into the Millers' car at 55 mph, demolishing the rear where the kindergartner was sitting in a child safety seat.

The grief "comes in waves," Cheryl Miller said. "Holidays are more difficult. ... You see brothers playing with brothers. ... For a moment it's agonizing."

Also agonizing was sitting in traffic court after Adam's death and watching the driver who killed him get away with a slap on the wrist.

"No one showed respect for his beautiful life," Miller said. "I felt like I was living in a Third World country where people are killed every day and no one cares."

She channeled that anger into lobbying legislators to stiffen penalties for distracted driving and to enact laws allowing victims to make statements in court and erect roadside memorials.

"When your child is born, you hold that child in your arms and you would climb any mountain for that child. You would do anything for that child.

"God forbid, if you lose that child, you don't stop feeling that way. You continue to be his advocate. You continue to be his voice."

This year, the Daily Herald has focused on distracted driving in a series of articles. We've looked at the difficulties of enforcing current laws, how the brain can't multitask when drivers talk on cellphones and drive, and the minuscule number of tickets issued for distracted driving offenses.

Currently, there's a hodgepodge of laws across the nation and region. Local groups like the Itasca-based National Safety Council and federal agencies such as the National Transportation Safety Board are calling for a ban on using cellphones (both hand-held and hands-free) and other electronic devices while driving.

Right now, that's politically difficult, lawmakers admit. "I don't think we're there yet," Senate President John Cullerton told me this month.

An estimated 448,000 people were injured and 5,474 killed in distracted-driving related crashes in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

About 16 percent of those fatal crashes involved cellphones as a distraction.

A 2011 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found 88 percent of respondents owned cellphones. About 40 percent of respondents reported answering and making calls on trips and 18 percent admitted to sending texts or emails while driving. Those 18 to 24 were two to three times more likely to text compared to older drivers.

While the data is nationwide, the epidemic of distracted driving is felt here.

The victims include little boys such as Adam Miller. Moms like Anita Zaffke of Lake Zurich who died when a woman polishing her nails slammed into Zaffke's motorcycle in May 2009. Dads such as Marcin Niepsuj of Hawthorn Woods who died this August when a woman authorities say was texting hit him while he worked on his vehicle on Route 53.

"People don't know how dangerous it is," Miller said. "I can honestly say that my heart aches every night putting only one child to bed."

What's your opinion on distracted driving laws? Email me at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Your voice

Here's what reader Dave Muntz of Elgin had to say about the idea of collecting gas taxes based on miles traveled instead of by the gallon.

"We have the mechanism in place to collect needed dollars via the gas tax. It's time to raise it!!" Muntz writes. "Why consider a 'new' method of taxing by the mile when miles driven relates directly to gas purchased! The obvious key is to make sure the funds collected are not diverted from their intended purpose. Perhaps revenues collected from the gas tax should be allocated to road projects within the county where tax is paid!? (Related to tensions between Chicago area and downstate.)"

You should know

On Jan. 1, Pace will change the hours for its reservation center for people with disabilities to book paratransit rides. New hours for trips within Chicago will be 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Suburban riders can schedule travel between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends.

Also, Pace riders should take note of an important schedule change for Dec. 26 and Jan. 2. A number of routes (see pacebus.com for a full list) will operate on a Sunday/holiday schedule, while others will not operate at all. Regular routes resume Tuesday.

Upcoming

• The Illinois tollway will raise rates by about 35 cents to 45 cents at most toll plazas Jan. 1. Rates at ramps will also increase. For more information, check out getipass.com.

One more thing

The CTA will offer rides for one penny on New Year's Eve starting at 10 p.m. through 4 a.m. Jan. 1. The agency advises riders to pay with pennies and not use fare cards as full fares will be deducted from cards. Meanwhile Metra will hold trains at downtown stations until 1:15 a.m. Jan. 1 to accommodate New Year's revelers. For information, visit metrarail.com.

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