Diane “DeeDee” Gonzalez was riding her motorcycle toward her home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, with her boyfriend, Darius Mehta, following on his motorcycle. They had just 3 miles to go. Suddenly, she saw the tires of an oncoming car crossing the double yellow line up ahead and her life changed forever.
A driver looking down at his phone hit her head-on. The impact threw her off her motorcycle, onto the hood of the car, and into bushes at the side of the road. “I could hear Darius yelling in a panic, ‘Where is she?!’ ” DeeDee says. She never lost consciousness and was aware of every excruciating second.
“I knew it was bad,” she says of the March 2017 crash. Her leg was broken at the thigh, and she recalls having to move it back down to its proper position. One year later, when she listened to the 911 call made by the driver, she heard herself ask on the recording: “Am I going to die?”
That day, DeeDee became yet another casualty of the national epidemic of distracted driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving kills an average of nine people and injures more than 1,000 each day. Texting is particularly dangerous because sending or reading a text takes an average of five seconds—and at 55 mph, that means a driver is traveling the length of a football field with his or her eyes off the road, the NHTSA reports.
DeeDee’s story is a reminder that, in a matter of seconds, one person’s poor decision behind the wheel, even if it doesn’t take a life, can have consequences that last a lifetime. “The police report said the driver looked down at his cell phone and did not look up until he heard a loud noise at the front of his vehicle, and then hit his brakes,” DeeDee says. “I call this a crash and not an accident because it was totally preventable.”
At the trauma center, where DeeDee was taken after the crash, it took the physicians half a day to stop the internal bleeding. She had a fractured sacrum (a bone in her lower back), pelvis, and femur. “The pain was horrendous,” DeeDee says. “Later, when I met the trauma surgeon who worked on me, he said, ‘We almost lost you.’ ”
DeeDee was bedridden for 31 days and could not put weight on her legs for another couple of weeks. Recovery has been a series of small victories. “First, they would prop me up on the edge of the bed for 15 seconds before I would collapse. The next day, I would do a few more seconds. Gradually, I went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane,” she says. For months, DeeDee made it a point not to look at her X-rays. “I didn’t want to know where the metal was; I just wanted to heal.”
When she finally went home, nearly 10 weeks after the crash, relatives and friends adjusted their lives so that someone could be with her every day for the next six months. During this time, so many questions were swirling in her mind: Will I walk on my own again? Will I always be in pain? Will I have to take medication for the rest of my life?
Before the crash, DeeDee, who is 48, had led an active life. She mountain biked, hiked, snow skied, and competed in duathlons. Her only health problem had been seasonal allergies. Today, she can walk, but she has nerve damage, numbness, and chronic pain and is expected to need physical therapy for the rest of her life.
Her paternal grandmother lived to 99, and DeeDee says she always figured she’d also live a long life. She used to look forward to retiring and traveling, but no longer. “I’ll probably get early-onset arthritis and there’s no telling what that will feel like as I age,” she says. “In a split second, a boy who chose to look at his phone instead of the road took that away from me. I’ll always wonder what was on that phone that was so important. A text, a picture. I don’t know.”
Criminal charges were filed against the driver, and the case was resolved. However, details about the court proceedings are confidential because the driver was a minor at the time of the crash. No doubt, his regrettable action is something he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life. In all this, DeeDee points out that she is not the only victim. “This has impacted Darius [now her husband], his family, my family, our friends, my job,” she says.
“I know people always say to look for the silver lining. I don’t see it yet,” DeeDee says. “But one thing I can do, since I did survive, is use my voice to advocate against distracted driving and maybe keep this from happening to someone else.”
Paul Lasley is a regular contributor to Westways.
DeeDee Gonzalez’s story vividly illustrates that when it comes to distracted driving, a split-second decision can have life-altering consequences. Given the scale of this nationwide problem, AAA last year launched the “Don’t Drive Intoxicated. Don’t Drive Intexticated” campaign, which focuses on reducing traffic deaths and injuries related to driver smartphone use. “The campaign is aimed at making texting while driving as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving,” says Katherine A. Sieck, a senior vice president at the Automobile Club of Southern California. To learn more about the dangers of distracted driving and to take a pledge to drive distraction-free, go to AAA.com/dontdrivedistracted.