"It only takes a second to change a lifetime," said Officer Gretchen Morgan of the Paducah Police Department.
This is the message of the "Heads Up Don't be In'TEXT'icated" program, which brings awareness to the dangers of distracted driving. The program is a joint effort between the department and the family of Hillary Coltharp.
In April 2012, the first presentation was given at Paducah Tilghman High School to about 900 students.
"It was absolutely amazing," said Morgan, who along with Capt. Don Hodgson helps coordinate the program. "I thought then, we've got something here, something that could be big."
Since then, the 45-minute program has been delivered to 4,000 people including students, businesses, church and civic groups at no cost. Other law enforcement and emergency services agencies have been among the biggest supporters of the program, inviting the "Heads Up Don't be In'TEXT'icated" program to the Kentucky Lifesavers Conference in Louisville in 2013 and again on June 4 of this year.
The department has just received some much needed funds to continue this mission, gaining a $21,000 grant from the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety. The funds will be used to expand the program and allow for presentations outside the Paducah area.
"The grant will help us with travel expenses, because it's costly," Morgan said. "We've had to turn down some (school) districts outside of Paducah because we didn't have the funds."
Morgan estimates the grant will pay for approximately 10-12 presentations.
"We'll talk to one or 10,000," Morgan continued. "We think every county in Kentucky needs to hear this, at minimum."
The difference in their program and others, Morgan said, is that Hillary Coltharp is alive. Other presentations only include speakers who have lost someone to distracted driving. Coltharp, 33, of Paducah, is living proof of the consequences of distracted driving, having survived a horrific crash in 2007.
"Hillary lived. She's right in front of them. Her walk is very labored, her speech is different from yours or mine. Hillary's real."
Morgan said the images shown during the program are graphic, but effective.
"We don't gloss anything over. We want this audience to hear the real story of what's she been through."
From the first images of the accident to Hillary's life now, it's a raw story.
On Sept. 1, 2007, Coltharp was traveling eastbound on Interstate 24 from Paducah to meet her family for dinner at a small restaurant in Gilbertsville.
She was so close to her destination, just four miles away, but she never arrived.
Later her family would learn, while attempting to respond to a text message, Coltharp lost control of her vehicle, rolled over three times and was ejected. She was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown approximately 75 feet.
Doctors gave her a less than 1 percent chance of survival. She was 26 .
Coltharp survived, but would face near-impossible challenges such as relearning to swallow, to eat, much less to walk. As a symptom of the traumatic brain injury she suffered, Coltharp also faces many memory problems.
"Hillary has event amnesia. She doesn't remember anything of her past - nothing," Morgan said. "It took her a year before she knew who her mom was."
Every day is still a herculean effort for Hillary, her mother Shawn Coltharp said, but she has "an iron will" and has vowed to advocate against distracted driving.
"Hillary wants to share her story so that others never have happen to them what happened to her," she said.
"She said, 'Mom, you'll never have that girl back.' We've had to completely get to know a new person altogether, but we love this one. It's painful," Shawn Coltharp explained, "but Hillary is adamant that, especially when talking to youth, we all tell the real changes in life."
And her mother makes no excuses that Hillary Coltharp was a distracted driver even before the accident in 2007.
"She was always grabbing for lipstick, CDs. Nobody thinks it's going to happen to them. Distracted driving is this generation's serious health challenge, this generation's cancer," she said. "Much of these behaviors are technology driven."
And it's not just teens who are at risk. Adults, parents who view the presentation are realizing that they, too, are doing these things.
"The message sticks with them. That's my motivation to keep going," Morgan said.
Because, ultimately, the program is about saving lives.
"Someone's counting on you to get to your destination," Shawn Coltharp stated. "Someone loves you that much."
Contact Carrie Dillard, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8657.
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