Instead of a planned trip to celebrate Sydnee Williams' 21st birthday in Las Vegas on Nov. 10, her family honored her memory by giving away 21 shirts and magnets with the messages "don't text and drive," "buckle up" and "give life."

Instead of a planned trip to celebrate Sydnee Williams' 21st birthday in Las Vegas on Nov. 10, her family honored her memory by giving away 21 shirts and magnets with the messages "don't text and drive," "buckle up" and "give life."

Central Ohio residents Brock and Sara Dietrich don't want other families to have to go through the pain they've experienced as the result of distracted driving.

"From her death, if we can save someone else -- we do it for her," Brock Dietrich said.

Williams was a junior at Gahanna Lincoln High School and Eastland-Fairfield Career and Technical Schools when she was driving westbound on state Route 161 near Beech Road in Licking County on Oct. 18, 2013, and made the decision to pick up her phone while behind the wheel.

That choice caused her to crash the vehicle, which also had two of her friends as passengers.

Williams wasn't wearing her seat belt and was thrown from the car. She died two days later as a result of her injuries. Her best friend, Vicky Navarro, suffered a broken arm, neck and back. She was wearing her lap seat belt, but her shoulder belt was behind her back.

Joe Looker, a front-seat passenger who was wearing his seat belt, walked away physically unharmed.

Preventing crashes

There were 20,186 distracted driving crashes in 2015 in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation. Those crashes resulted in 782 serious injuries and 56 fatalities.

In Franklin County, 2,152 crashes were related to distracted driving in 2015, with 63 serious injuries and seven people losing their lives as a result. Licking County had 288 crashes last year with four serious injuries and no fatalities, according to ODOT.

Dietrich said the problem of distracted driving is epidemic, and the only way to effect change is education -- repeating the message.

"We had told Sydnee if you don't drink, we'll take you to Vegas on your 21st birthday," he said. "We were going to take her; it was something she wanted to do. It was her incentive to do the right thing."

Instead, distracted driving took her life about a month before her 18th birthday.

As a parent, Dietrich said he wants others to learn from the things he did wrong.

"I didn't set a good enough example for Sydnee," he said.

He said he was responsible for teaching her how to drive, sitting in the passenger seat.

"I would look at my phone when she was driving instead of talking about the situation going on in the road," he said.

Now he always has his cellphone on mute whether he's driving or at work.

"I don't allow my cell to dictate my interactions," Dietrich said.

Heidi Deane, Ohio Education and Outreach coordinator for Impact Teen Drivers, and Dietrich have shared Sydnee's story with nearly 10,000 teens, warning them about distracted driving.

Thanks to a grant through State Farm, she said, the nonprofit organization has been able to visit schools for free.

Impact's stated mission is to change the culture of driving to save lives not only in this generation of drivers, but in future generations.

Of teenagers who die in car crashes, 50 percent are unbuckled, 60 percent are passengers and 75 percent of the cases involve no drugs or alcohol, Deane said.

"Two or more peer passengers more than triples the risk of a fatal crash with a teen at the wheel," she said. "Every year, 4,000 teens lose their life to car crashes."

In eighth and ninth grade, Deane said, children often become passengers of teens.

"That's a missed opportunity with most programs in what kids need to watch out for," she added. "The behavior they bring into the car is a huge problem."

If other kids are looking at social media apps in the vehicle, it's hard for a teen driver to ignore it, Deane said.

"It's not just the phone, but changing music or little kids showing homework," she said.

During workshops for parents of teens, Deane said, adults are told they influence teens' choices.

If parents are doing multiple tasks while driving, generally, that's what looks normal to the teens, she said.

"No one should be on the phone in the car," Deane said.

State and local laws

Ohio's law banning texting while driving took effect in 2013. Officers can stop drivers who are 17 and younger for using an electronic device while driving as a primary offense. The law is enforceable only as a secondary offense for adults, meaning drivers have to be stopped for a primary offense such as speeding.

Ohio suburbs have various laws in place, with Bexley becoming the first in central Ohio to ban cellphone use while driving. The law, which makes cellphone use a primary offense, took effect Oct. 14.

Law officers in Bexley now can cite any driver spotted holding a cellphone.

Johnstown police Chief Don Corbin said the village doesn't have a specific ordinance for distracted driving but it's covered under failure to control.

"Failure to control covers a multitude of sins, like a driver texting and running into the back of a car, or reaching for a dropped cigarette," he said.

Gahanna also addressed the issue with "failure to control; weaving; full time and attention" with violators being charged with a minor misdemeanor for a first offense.

A Columbus texting ban went into effect on May 5, 2010. It's considered a primary offense if officers initiate a stop with reasonable suspicion the driver is violating the statute.

The Columbus code states a driver hasn't violated the code by merely having a cellphone in their hand while operating a vehicle. Police must have evidence the driver was engaged in texting, according to the code.

Safe Communities Program

Hilary Requejo, health educator for the Licking County Health Department, said her department's Safe Communities Program provides traffic safety education and awareness that addresses distracted driving.

The program is funded through a grant from the Ohio Traffic Safety Office, a division of the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

"The program includes a coalition which consists of local law enforcement agencies, emergency personnel, county engineering, and community members who meet monthly to collaborate efforts and resources toward decreasing motor-vehicle crashes and fatalities in Licking County," Requejo said.

Part of the mission is to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.

The coalition reported two fatal crashes in the county during the third quarter this year, with one suspected to have involved texting and driving.

"Someone who is texting and driving is 23 times more likely to crash, Requejo said. "A person dies every 52 minutes from impaired driving, and front-seat passengers increase their risk of dying or being seriously injured by 50 percent when not wearing a seat belt."

Despite the statistics, she said, people still engage in distracting behaviors.

"Make the rules for your car and know what you need to do to be safe every time you get into a vehicle, so that you don't end up being the next statistic," Requejo said.

Dietrich said people think they have skills to beat the dangers of distracted driving.

"It doesn't work that way," he said. "It doesn't matter how long you've been driving. If you have done it in the past, it's not skill that's saving you, but luck."

He said the pain of his daughter's loss doesn't go away, but he repeatedly tells her story so that she may help save others' lives.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla