Paducah police knew they had someone special when they incorporated Hillary Coltharp into their outreach program to educate drivers, especially younger ones, about the gravity of the danger from texting and driving.
Their 45-minute program, which admonishes listeners against driving while "inTEXTicated", has been presented to more than 4,000 people in our area, many of them high school students. But it is gaining a statewide audience.
The group, which in addition to Coltharp includes Capt. Don Hodgson and Officer Gretchen Morgan of the Paducah Police Department, was invited to share its presentation with the Kentucky Lifesavers Conference in Louisville last year and has been asked to make a repeat-appearance there next month.
Paducah police also have received a $21,000 grant from the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety that should cover 10-12 additional presentations.
Paducah's obviously is not the only police department in the state to offer distracted driving presentations. But it has one of the most powerful, and the reason, says Morgan, is Coltharp.
"Hillary lived," explains Morgan. "She's right in front of them. Her walk is very labored, her speech is different from yours or mine. Hillary's real."
Coltharp was 26 when in 2007, while driving along Interstate 24 to meet her family for dinner, she attempted to respond to a text. She lost control of her car, which flipped three times and ejected her, throwing her about 75 feet from the vehicle. Doctors put odds against her survival at 100 to 1, and she traveled a grueling path to recovery. She had to re-learn tasks as basic as swallowing, eating and speaking. She still battles a number of memory problems and remembers nothing of her life before the wreck.
It is, as Sun reporter Carrie Dillard put it in a Sunday article, "a raw story." But it also is a courageous story, and one that grabs audiences in ways that other such programs cannot.
Distracted driving is of course an epidemic, be it texting or just generally paying more attention to a cellphone conversation than what's happening in traffic around you. Day was a person got into a car and promptly lit a cigarette, itself a deadly habit. Now with similar frequency many of us observe people who get in their cars and start dialing as a part of their driving routine, oblivious to the risk they pose to themselves and others. Adults tend to be the worst offenders on this front, setting terrible examples for younger, less-experienced drivers.
In 2011 the National Transportation Safety Board recommended an outright ban on cellphone use in cars - never mind just texting - based on findings that the distraction caused by use of the devices while driving quadrupled the chance of being in an accident (on par with drunk driving).
In a state that a generation ago actually repealed its motorcycle helmet law in the name of personal freedom, we're hard-pressed to believe such pre-emptive measures against distracted driving as a cellphone use ban are in the cards, although they probably should be.
That leaves education as the only other avenue. Our region is fortunate to have Hillary Coltharp and the Paducah Police program as perhaps the most effective program in the state to communicate the dangers and the consequences of such conduct.