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February 10, 2016

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state legislature:

Fatal accident solidifies senator’s drive for safety

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Christopher DeVargas

State Sen. Shirley Breeden poses at the U.S. 95-Las Vegas Beltway interchange on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. Breeden authored a new law that bans using handheld cellphones and electronic devices while driving.

Sen. Shirley Breeden

Ed Long, a volunteer and Shirley Breeden supporter, hugs Breeden in September 2008 as they canvass a neighborhood in state Senate District 5 in Henderson. A recently retired school administrator and a political novice, Breeden stresses her experience as a soccer mom and her Launch slideshow »

There was nothing spectacular about the intersection — two busy roads, traffic signals, narrow medians, gas stations on two corners and a pizza joint on another. But what happened here has forever altered one family and has the potential to change state laws.

Just before noon Aug. 4, a Chevy Suburban ran a red light at Charleston and Jones boulevards. It plowed into the side of a Lincoln Town Car making a left turn. The driver of the Suburban, who police said was driving without a license or insurance and was impaired from high doses of unprescribed pharmaceuticals, wasn’t injured. But the driver of the Lincoln was, and her passenger was pronounced dead at the scene.

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Most people who advocate for traffic safety laws have personal experiences, and sometimes make emotional appeals to encourage compliance.

Now, state Sen. Shirley Breeden is one of them.

As the author of the new law that banned using handheld cellphones and electronic devices while driving, she has been making the rounds on morning news shows and holding news conferences.

Her speeches are less compelling and emotional than her companion speakers — people such as Jennifer Watkins, who was seriously injured along with her husband when they were hit by a driver using a phone and playing with the radio, and Brian LaVoie, whose 18-year-old daughter, Hillary, died in a rollover crash involving a distracted driver.

Breeden hasn’t said much about her own tragedy — the accident that killed her father and severely injured her mother. It’s still fresh, it happened after the cellphone law passed, and it didn’t involve a phone. But it fits with her other work on transportation issues and may suggest what topics she’ll be interested in next session.

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When officers arrived at the Aug. 4 DUI crash, they found Robert Foster dead, four days short of his 83rd birthday. His wife, Geneva, 78, had serious head injuries. Trauma doctors at UMC found four skull fractures and had to install a bolt to relieve the pressure on her damaged brain.

Metro Police said the driver of the Suburban, 29-year-old Jose Gomez, appeared to be impaired and was trying to leave the scene when they arrived.

Breeden was looking for her parents almost six hours later when she got a call from UMC. As soon as she saw the number, she knew they had been in an accident.

Doctors kept Geneva Foster sedated and on a ventilator for nearly a week. She spent two weeks at UMC and 12 days at a rehabilitation center before returning home, where her son lives. Breeden also moved in for three weeks to help. The senator visits every day.

Foster lost her short-term memory and much of her vision and hearing from the head injuries.

“She’s very weak,” Breeden said. Her mom used to read and knit; both are now impossible. “All the things she loves to do, she can’t do. I don’t care whose family it is, you shouldn’t have to go through that.”

Breeden isn’t sure how the medical bills are going to be handled. “Whatever she needs, we’re going to do and I’ll just worry about the rest of it when the time comes,” she said. “I just want my mom to get better.”

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Breeden’s father told her not to run for office, but the retired Clark County School District administrator did it anyway.

In the state Senate, her father has been one of her inspirations. “The personal experiences keep driving me,” the Henderson Democrat said.

In March 2009, her dad was infected with the deadly bacterium MRSA at a hospital. Breeden has since pushed for hospitals to be more aggressive in preventing infections and notifying patients about them.

But it wasn’t a personal experience that made her write the cellphone law and vote to strengthen DUI enforcement and seat belt laws.

Erin Breen, director of UNLV’s Safe Community Partnership and one of the state’s primary safety advocates, said Breeden has always supported traffic safety.

“She didn’t need her father to be killed to change her perspective,” Breen said.

Sen. Mark Manendo said: “There’s a handful of public safety advocates in the Legislature. I wish we had more. But Shirley Breeden is a champion.”

Supporting public safety is just common sense, said the 55-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four.

“I’m all for making our world a better place and safer. Society has changed so much; it’s really scary out there, whether it’s guns or people driving under the influence, it’s scary. I have grandkids growing up.”

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Click to enlarge photo

Jose Gomez

Gomez was uninjured and doctors quickly cleared him to leave the hospital, but Metro wanted to talk to him first.

In a break room, he admitted to running the red light, claiming his brakes failed. Police said skid marks at the intersection disprove that.

According to the arrest report, he told officers, “The other driver should have swerved out of the way, since he was running the red light and he had no liability.”

He admitted to taking high doses of Xanax, a prescription drug for anxiety, and Lortab, a prescription painkiller, the report says. But he didn’t have a reason for taking the drugs, and didn’t have them legally.

Officers administered six field sobriety tests. Gomez failed them all, but a breath test showed he had no alcohol in his system, police said. Blood and urine samples were taken and Gomez was arrested on two counts of felony driving under the influence of a controlled substance resulting in death or bodily harm.

The exact charges Gomez faces may change as Metro and the district attorney’s office finish preparing the case, but he could face two to 20 years in prison for each DUI charge, officials said.

Breeden has been following his case closely. She’s gone to all of Gomez’s court hearings and is in regular contact with Metro and the DA’s office, all while dealing with the accident’s effects on her family.

But she also has realized that “senseless accidents” affect others — the public who have to pay for emergency responders, other motorists stuck in traffic and even the suspect’s family.

“What about his family?” she asks. “I don’t know anything about his family; I don’t know if he’s a father, but he’s a son. It affects his family, too.”

•••

Last year, 89 of the 257 traffic-related fatalities in the state involved drugs or alcohol, according to preliminary reports. Officials said this year’s numbers will probably be higher, and more of those crashes are the result of drugs — often prescription — instead of just alcohol.

Breeden says she isn’t sure what will happen in the 2013 legislative session — or even if she will be re-elected, noting that people who oppose the cellphone law have made their anger clear in email to her.

It’s too early anyway for her to think through the legal questions her parents’ accident raises. She’s busy taking care of her family.

But when issues such as drunken and drugged driving come up, her father’s memory is sure to influence her actions.

“I lost my dad, and I’m not the only one. It’s not fair,” she tearfully said. “If I can save one life, it’s worth it.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me, it’s not going to happen to me,’ and they don’t understand how it alters your life and shatters your family.”

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