Driver's moment of inattention led to double fatal crash
Lynn and Bill Tyler, married for 40 years, were the kind of couple who still held hands.
They lived in Lebanon with their two German shepherd dogs and two Siamese cats. Lynn, 62, was an office manager for a root canal specialist in East Lyme. Bill, 63, worked in the engineering department at Foxwoods Resort Casino. They spent holidays and vacations with family, treating their niece, Kristie Jones, and her two siblings as their own children.
The Tylers died within 50 minutes of each other on June 21, 2013, when their Honda CRV sport utility vehicle was struck head-on by a distracted driver on Route 2 in Preston near the intersection of Hewitt Road.
The urns containing their cremated remains are buried together in St. Mary's Cemetery in New London. The gravestone inscription reads "Soulmates in life and death."
Thomas P. Flaherty, 57, of Willimantic, was sober but distracted when his GMC Sierra pickup slammed head-on into the Tylers' car, according to court documents. He was driving home from working in Rhode Island when he coughed and tapped on his brakes, causing his cellphone to slide across the dashboard. He reached for his phone, and then, in his own words in a statement to police shortly after the accident, "Bang."
Flaherty told police someone helped him get out of his truck, and he checked to see if the occupants of the CRV were OK. He went back to the car to find his phone and call 911. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide with a motor vehicle and received a fullly suspended sentence with one year of probation.
Flaherty took responsibility for the crash from the beginning, and the Tylers' family told court officials they did not want him to go to prison.
"My aunt was a very forgiving person," said Jones, the executrix of the Tylers' estate, during a recent interview. "To me, it's the right thing to do. He made a mistake. He owned it. If this experience can help make people aware, that's a win."
Jones said that she, too, would reach for a fallen item while driving, but, by the grace of God, she never killed somebody.
"Before this, I thought distracted driving was texting or talking on the phone," she said. She said her aunt Lynn Tyler, a careful and defensive driver, had taught her how to drive.
The Tylers' estate recently received a $3 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit brought against Flaherty and his employer, the Andrew Ansaldi contracting company. Their attorney, Humbert J. Polito, said the initial claim was against Flaherty, but after investigating the circumstances of the crash, the estate was able to sue the employer as well. The case was settled during mediation sessions before Superior Court Judge William H. Bright Jr.
In his statement to state police, Flaherty said he had gone to the Charlestown, R.I., home of his employer that day and poured floors for a garage and two porches. He left about 4 p.m., Flaherty said, and had not made any stops when the crash occurred at about 5:30 p.m. Other employees had taken a company vehicle to the site, though Flaherty was in his personal car.
"We were able to demonstrate through their company that their custom was to pay for your return trip back to your company," Polito said.
Flaherty was a hardworking man who had a tragic moment of inattention, Polito said.
"What I find unique and kind of powerful was the level of accountability he took," Polito said. "Because of that, the family in turn was able to stand up for him."
Flaherty's attorney indicated to Polito that Flaherty did not want to participate in this story at this time, and he could not be reached for comment at his home in Willimantic.
Jones said her family feels the settlement is fair but would give back every penny if they could have the Tylers back.
Polito's firm and Jones have become involved with a group called End Distracted Driving. Jones said she never takes off the group's pink rubber bracelet, which shows a driver with two hands on the steering wheel.
"We go to schools and speak," Polito said. "The premise of the program is that when people think about distracted driving, they think about teenagers. It's designed to get them to go home and talk to the adults in their lives."
Former New London Police patrolman Eddie Hedge, who now works for the Highway Safety Office of the state Department of Transportation, said distracted driving is a huge problem on Connecticut roads. Incidents like the one that killed the Tylers are not accidents, he said. They're crashes, and they're preventable.
His contacts in law enforcement are telling him that despite Connecticut's law prohibiting the use of hand-held cellphones by drivers, they are still seeing drivers talking or manipulating their phones. Other common distractions include changing the radio, eating, personal grooming and having pets on your lap or in the passenger's seat, he said.
"When you're in a vehicle and you're in the driver's seat, your one job is to drive the vehicle safely," Hedge said. "If you have an automatic vehicle, that means both hands on the steering wheel. Anything that takes your eyes and mind off the task of driving is distracting, even changing the radio station."
Hedge said not too many people complain when they receive an infraction for distracted driving.
"They know it's dangerous, and they know people are doing it," he said.
DOT says millions of distracted driving occurrences take place each day
In a 2015 study, a research group working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation observed drivers on local roads and estimated that on any given day on a local road in Connecticut, there could be 11.1 million occurrences taking place over a 24-hour period. A single driver could, for example, be responsible for several occurrences by looking at a cellphone repeatedly.
That same year, distracted driving accounted for about 7 percent of all crashes, 4 percent of fatal crashes and 9 percent of all crashes that resulted in an injury.
During six-week distracted driving campaigns in April and August 2015, 50 law enforcement agencies throughout the state issued 22,340 citations, mostly for using hand-held cellphones and texting.
In 2016, 49 agencies participated in the campaign and issued 18,700 citations.
"We know that doing high-visibility enforcement can have an effect," said Aaron Swanson, program manager for distracted driving at the state Department of Transportation Highway Safety Office. "We're not sure for how long. But when you look at societal changes, like for seatbelts and impaired driving, that kind of change takes time."
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