Opinion: Think what this teen's idea could save

Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

A fatal accident prompts a Golden Triangle legislator to try to bring common sense to some emergency situations.

In the meantime, a teenager's singular effort to address what she sees as an equally serious problem is going largely unnoticed.

District 38 State Rep. Gary Chism, a Lowndes County Republican who represents parts of Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties, has pushed HB 1202 through the House.

Pushed may be overly dramatic; it passed 117-0 so it didn't require much of a push, just a little wind for its full sail.

And why not? It's one of those feel-good measures that's tough to argue with. Simply put, it would amend existing state statutes concerning how vehicles are marked and lighted to require any responder operating "an emergency vehicle authorized to be marked with blinking, rotating or oscillating lights ... shall use blinking, rotating or oscillating lights when operating the emergency vehicle at a speed in excess of" 30 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.

The genesis for the legislation, which still must be approved by the Senate, is a May 7, 2017, accident that killed 22-year-old Kaelin Kersh, a Mississippi State University track athlete who had graduated less than 48 hours earlier. The 2002 Toyota Corolla in which she was riding was broadsided by a speeding Highway Patrol SUV driven by Kyle Lee. The trooper was eastbound on Highway 182 at about 1:30 a.m. on a rainy night when the Corolla, driven by Noel Collier, tried to pull from Mayhew Road to go west on Highway 182.

Porter and front-seat passenger Tanequa Alexander, were injured. He said he misjudged the trooper's sped because it had no indication it was speeding.

The families of Kersh and the survivors have sued Lee and the Department of Public Safety and the Department has countersued. The families claim dash-cam video from his cruiser show he was doing 100 mph with no lights or siren going.

The official accident report says he was doing 68 in a 45 mph zone.

The trooper was responding to a call of a car that had left the road and driven into a ditch.

As Chism notes, it obviously makes sense for emergency responders, whether a state trooper, volunteer firefighter or undercover drug agent, to show some signs of urgency -- flashing lights, for instance -- when speeding to a call.

It stuns me to think the Mississippi Highway Patrol didn't already have a policy in place requiring it.

I guess it's better late than never that we put something like this in state law, although since it doesn't include any penalty, it's little more than a formality. I guess it would serve to establish some responsibility in a lawsuit.

While the accident provided the big-picture motivation for the bill, the real force was Chism having to eat a little crow. Last year, four days after the accident, Chism told a large group of business and civic leaders in Columbus he was almost certain the accident was alcohol-related. He was using it to support his opposition to the so-called "red-cup" law being discussed in the Legislature.

Within days of his comments, he got a call from Kaelin Kersh's mother, who explained to him alcohol was not the cause.

"She told me I was in error," Chism said, noting the students had been drinking but weren't intoxicated. "I had to apologize to her and did.
"But after that, it started our conversation about the cause and how we needed to do something so another mother doesn't have to go through this. It was such a simple idea," Chism continued.

All that said, it begs the question of why Mississippi remains one of 32 states that don't require drivers to have their headlights on when their windshield wipers are on. Kelly Corley, a high school senior in Rankin County, wonders the same thing.

In fact, she's made raising awareness about the issue her project for her Girl Scout Gold Award. She has established a Web site -- https://windshieldheadlightlaw.weebly.com -- and been contacting legislators and distributing information and public locations in her community.

It's easier to let her say in her own words why she took up the issue: "I was driving one day while it was raining and I was about to turn on to a road when a dark-colored car drove past me without its headlights on. I didn't see that car at all and if I had turned a second before we would have collided. Curiously, I looked it up and of course Mississippi didn't have a law in place for that, but 19 other states did."

She also noted a 2011 study by the Transportation Lighting Alliance shows a direct reduction in fatal traffic accidents after a state had added the windshield wiper headlight regulation. In fact, the “Daytime Use of Automotive Headlamps During Inclement Weather: Safety and Conspicuity” study determined the law reduced dawn/dusk fatal crashes by 30% and daytime accidents by 7%, she told me.

"That's another one that sounds like a no-brainer," Chism told me.

Unfortunately, her efforts have failed to attract much attention in the halls of the Legislature.

And it's probably too late to try to amend any existing legislation this year to make the change. But Chism and some others are looking for ways to put some teeth in the state's ban on texting and driving which is almost unenforceable.

The windshield wiper-headlight link would be a natural tie to the texting issue, Chism agreed.

We all appreciate the emotional, feel-good moments provided by bills like the one Chism is pushing. Think what Kelly Corley's issue could do.

Steve Rogers is the news reporter for the Daily Times Leader in West Point. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the newspaper or its staff.