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    A phone rings; suddenly, a man lies dead

    After a fatal crash, officials say cell phones aren't the only dangerous distraction for drivers.

    By LEON M. TUCKER and ANGELA MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


    After a long day, Paul Martin was looking forward to visiting his girlfriend at her Tampa apartment.

    As he drove across the Howard Frankland Bridge about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, his cell phone rang.

    Martin briefly leaned over to grab the phone off the floorboard.

    As he did, his Ford Explorer swerved into the emergency lane, striking a man who was changing a tire on his car.

    "When I got out of the car, I saw him lying on the side of the road," Martin, 26, said Wednesday at his Clearwater home. "I tried to give him CPR, but the blood was coming from his mouth."

    Richard J. McKeefery, 23, died at the scene.

    "I'm so sorry about his family," said Martin, his eyes red and swollen from sobbing.

    This is but the latest example of what can go wrong when motorists drive and talk on cellular phones.

    This year, 38 states have bills pending related to the use of cell phones while driving. So far no states have actually passed laws, but cities in New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania have banned cell phone use while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

    Each day, between 4,000 and 8,000 crashes are caused by distracted drivers nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Tuning a radio, eating or interacting with passengers are all considered distracted driving, and over a year account for as many as half of the 6-million crashes reported.

    "The real focus needs to be on looking at everything that is a distraction," said Cindy Sharpe, spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa. "There are a lot more cars on the road today, and driving takes all of our attention."

    That is something Martin now understands.

    "I'll never talk on my phone again while I'm driving," said Martin, a carpenter. "I don't even know how to describe how I'm feeling."

    No charges have been filed in the accident, but the investigation is continuing, Florida Highway Patrol officials said.

    On Wednesday afternoon, the Temple Terrace house near the Hillsborough River where McKeefery lived with three friends was packed with red-eyed young people who hugged each other, cried and shook their heads.

    His roommates, Josh Persbacker, Chris Gugliotta and Justin Ansley, shared a love of movies, cars and football. McKeefery, who was a waiter at Applebee's where his roommates also worked, was a die-hard Denver Broncos fan who quoted from the movie Top Gun constantly, his friends said.

    Everyone was in pain Wednesday, they said, but perhaps no one more than Michael Charles Bobkins, who was a passenger in McKeefery's car and saw his friend die.

    "Mike said he turned his head for one second, and the guy just plowed into him," said Persbacker, 20. "The other guy stopped and tried to help, but . . ."

    Martin also had difficulty keeping emotions in check at his condominium Wednesday as he tried to explain what happened.

    "I felt horrible," he said. "I remember running along the side of the road and seeing him lying there -- I didn't know what to do."

    He said he never answered his Motorola StarTAC flip phone and doesn't know who called him.

    Then Martin excused himself and went to the bathroom, where he became ill.

    "The real issue here is both driver distraction and the importance of realizing that when you break down, how dangerous it can be standing next to the road like that," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Harold Frear.

    Although part of McKeefery's Mitsubishi Eclipse was off the roadway, Frear said McKeefery should have moved it farther onto the grass.

    Gugliotta and Persbacker, meanwhile, say they have conflicting emotions about Martin's role in the accident.

    "Everyone's done it, reached for the cell phone, not paid attention to the road," Persbacker said. "But you've got to be careful."

    "If I was there last night, I don't know whether I would have tried to give Rick CPR or tried to kill the other guy," said Gugliotta, 22. "But it was an accident. If he'd been drinking or high, it would be different. But he was sober and just distracted.

    "God wanted to take him now. That's all it was."

    - Times staff writer Amy Herdy and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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