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Senators kill a bill restricting cellphones. Eight days later, a woman is dead.

You, too, could be hit by a texting driver, says this disabled Boise man

Dan Dolenar and his wife, Leslie, talk in their East Boise home about the traffic accident that changed their lives. In the summer of 2016, Dolenar suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit by a young driver who was believed to be texting
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Dan Dolenar and his wife, Leslie, talk in their East Boise home about the traffic accident that changed their lives. In the summer of 2016, Dolenar suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit by a young driver who was believed to be texting

On Feb. 28, the Idaho Senate killed a bill that would have banned the use of electronic devices while driving, except in hands-free mode. The effort was deemed government overreach by foes who said Idaho already has ways to punish inattentive driving.

Eight days later, Pamela Susan Sherman was dead. A 19-year-old driver who was allegedly distracted rear-ended her Mercedes, ramming it into the truck in front of her. The cause of death, according to the Ada County coroner, was “severe blunt force trauma.”

Two weeks after that, Dan Dolenar went to the doctor complaining of seizures. The 48-year-old Boise man had been hit by an allegedly distracted driver on a Utah highway in 2016, an accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury and little short-term memory.

It is unclear whether a tougher law might have saved Sherman’s life. Texting while driving is already illegal in Idaho. Opponents of stricter regulation argue that existing restrictions should simply be more widely enforced.

So, unless you cause an accident, there is little police can do to punish you if you use portable electronic devices for anything else while piloting thousands of pounds of steel on Gem State roads. You can post to Facebook, make calls while holding a phone to your ear, watch a movie, manually enter an address into a navigation device or app, take photos, record video, surf the web.

Which is why many people close to Sherman believe stronger regulations are necessary. Our relationship with cars and technology is complicated and contradictory, the bill’s supporters say, and better laws are needed to change behavior and make roads safer.

“We’re a society that’s mobile. We’re working from our cars. Maybe it’s time we start pulling over,” said Cindy Woyak, Sherman’s friend and owner of Woyak and Co. Realty in Boise, where Sherman worked.

‘A case of distracted driving’

Meridian police are investigating whether the young man was using an electronic device when he hit the vivacious 63-year-old real estate agent. Sherman is survived by two daughters in their 20s, four grandchildren and dozens of distraught co-workers.

“We can’t say right now” if he was texting or otherwise using a phone, said Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea, because the collision is still under investigation. “We do believe it is a case of distracted driving.”

Meridian police have not disclosed the suspect’s name, and he has not been charged with a crime, Basterrechea said. The most serious charge he could face is misdemeanor involuntary vehicular manslaughter, which has a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and/or up to a $2,000 fine.

Woyak was showing houses to a prospective buyer on March 5 when her cellphone rang. Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center was on the line. Sherman had been taken by ambulance, unconscious, to the trauma center from the accident scene, the intersection of Chinden Boulevard and Meridian Road. The hospital needed her emergency contact information.

Woyak raced to her office and called the hospital with the name and phone number for Sherman’s oldest daughter. Then she called Valerie Dickerson, another agent and one of Sherman’s closest friends.

“I said, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you about Pam,’ ” Woyak recounted. “She goes, ‘Oh, I’m with her other daughter right now. We’ve been calling her. She stood us up for lunch.’ 

At the hospital, Woyak said, she talked to the Meridian police officer handling the investigation. He told her Sherman was stopped when her car was struck and “sandwiched.”

The driver “was going at an elevated rate of speed, was distracted and hit her,” Woyak said.

Sherman was declared dead at 2:45 p.m. March 8 and buried on March 16.

“Today we say farewell to Pam Sherman, part of our WoCo family,” Woyak wrote on her agency’s Facebook page. “Her life ended because someone was fiddling with their cellphone. Let everyone know that in a split second, a 19-year-old must now live with taking an innocent life … Let’s stop. Nothing is that important.”

Why single out phones?

Sherman and Dolenar (pronounced duh-LAY-ner) are just two recent instances of distracted driving. In 2016, 64 people were killed in Idaho by distracted drivers, according to the Boise Police Department. There were 4,973 distracted-driving crashes, resulting in 3,681 people injured.

Six years ago, Taylor Sauer, an 18-year-old student from Caldwell, had been texting and posting to Facebook when she slammed into the back of a semitractor while driving nearly 90 mph on Interstate 84 near Mountain Home. Her death drew national attention.

During the debate over Senate Bill 1283, which would have strengthened prohibitions against using electronic devices while driving, several senators described the bill as unnecessary. Lots of things cause distracted driving, they said, so why single out cellphones?

“I know of a car accident in Montpelier that happened because a pretty girl was walking down the street,” said state Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs. “There’s already laws and fines for inattentive driving. This bill is not needed. I think the issue may be better addressed through education, not regulation. The intention is good, but this bill goes too far.”

Just look at the drivers around you the next time you stop at an intersection, said state Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow: “They’re all on their phones. So from that I have to conclude that that is what the people of our state want.”

“Another example of overreach,” said state Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens. Vick did not support the 2012 ban on texting and driving, either.

State Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, wrote the bill that would have strengthened prohibitions against using electronic devices. The bill would expand banned behavior beyond texting, require electronics to be used hands-free and prohibit drivers younger than 21 from operating a vehicle while using mobile devices.

Hagedorn said his colleagues’ comments “saddened me. I have a great deal of respect for the senators. But these concerns were based on the fact that other states have these laws, like California. They don’t want Idaho to become California.”

Hagedorn said millions of dollars have been spent on highway improvements, and cars get safer every year, yet Idahoans still die because of distracted drivers.

“People are not using their electronic devices in the most sensible way,” he said.

“Think twice about texting and driving.”

When Leslie Dolenar booted up her computer and read what Idaho senators said about the bill, she was “heartbroken.” Her husband, Dan, was hit by an allegedly distracted driver two years ago. His brain injury shows itself through serious symptoms, and he can no longer do his old job.

“I sat there by myself and cried,” the 50-year-old Boise woman said in an interview. “Who knows how many more people are going to be affected by this?

Dan Dolenar had worked in the produce section of Albertsons stores in Idaho for 20 years when he was promoted to his dream job: head of produce operations for 14 stores in four states. The catch was that he and Leslie had to move to Salt Lake City.

On July 15, 2016, he was driving south on Utah State Route 36 in his gray Dodge Ram pickup, heading to a work meeting.

“And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, BOOM!” he recounted. A 22-year-old woman in a Ford Expedition slammed into the right rear side of his pickup and hit the gas instead of the brake. As her SUV scraped along the pickup’s right side, their door handles got stuck. She continued to drive, dragging the pickup, which shook violently. Dolenar hit his head again and again, before the Expedition broke free and spun off the highway into a ditch. He pulled over and blacked out briefly.

For more than a month, doctors said he’d just had a concussion and he would eventually return completely to normal. But his brain swelled, his head kept pounding, he went largely blind for two weeks and his speech deteriorated.

Finally, a neurologist gave Leslie the bad news: Her husband didn’t just have a concussion. He was never going to get better. She should take him home to Boise, where they have friends and family. After eight months, Leslie said, he was deemed 40 percent whole-body disabled.

Dan Dolenar still works for Albertsons, stacking fruit and vegetables in the produce section of a Boise store. He can’t work more than six hours a day. He sleeps, often for hours, after each shift. He works early mornings when the store is quiet. No more salary and bonuses; he is paid hourly.

“Monday through Friday, I wake up at about 3:40 (a.m.), go to work and work ’til about 10,” he said recently. “Then before I head home, I eat something, because sometimes I [have] forgotten where I live if I’m too light-headed.”

He has little short-term memory. He cannot be left alone for more than short stretches. He has begun having mild seizures. His speech is halting and childlike. He loses words and cannot pronounce R’s and L’s.

Because her husband was able to drive off after the accident, Leslie Dolenar said, the original police report listed no injuries. The driver’s friend showed up immediately after she hit him. A witness told Leslie that she overheard the driver saying she had been texting. But her cellphone records were never pulled, Leslie said.

The driver was charged with an infraction — unsafe lane travel — and agreed to pay a fine of $150, said Rebecca Poulsen, with the Tooele County, Utah, Attorney’s Office.

“Texting is illegal,” Poulsen said. “The fact that a report of that isn’t in our system leads me to believe there was not enough evidence to prove it.”

That light punishment makes Leslie Dolenar furious. She wants the laws against distracted driving toughened. She wants it to be easier to obtain the cellphone records of distracted-driving suspects. Dan Dolenar is a lovely, happy man, she said, but his life will never be the same.

“We don’t want anybody to feel sorry or anything,” she said. “We just hope people will look at him and think.”

Dan Dolenar has two goals. He wants to talk to high school students who are just getting their driver’s licenses so they will see the damage that distracted drivers can cause. And, someday, he said, he wants to go to the Idaho Capitol and push for better laws.

“Think twice about texting and driving,” he said. “That’s what I want.”

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga

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