Jim Freybler hushed an auditorium full of teenagers, then told them that texting a few words on a cell phone was all it took to kill his son Jacob.
“You guys need to think about that, OK?” Freybler told the recent assembly at Kenowa Hills High School. “Texting takes lives. Your parents don’t want to be up here like I am.”
The father’s brief but powerful appeal hit home with many students at the school where Jacob would have been a senior this year. The 17-year-old was killed in a car accident June 18 when his car crossed the center line on Eighth Avenue near Marne and crashed head-on with an SUV. Ottawa County sheriff’s deputies said he had been sending and receiving texts at the time.
His father’s testimony capped a day-long program on the dangers of distracted driving. It had been planned long before Jacob’s death, and some wondered if it should be called off because of the accident. His family insisted it go on.
“I said, ‘We have to do it. We’ve got to get the message out,’” Jim Freybler said. “There’s too many people out there that are texting and driving. They’re eating, putting on makeup, weaving all over the road. It’s not just kids, it’s adults too.”
He teamed with Jim Blaszak, a State Farm Insurance agent who organized the event as a way to give back to his alma mater and raise awareness. Blaszak said he’s lost a lot of former classmates to distracted driving.
“It used to be drunk driving was the big thing,” Blaszak said. “The biggest drug on the planet right now is a smart phone in the car.”
‘People are Learning from the Mistakes He Made’
The Kent County Sheriff’s Department collaborated in the event, in which students simulated distracted-driving scenarios on table-top computers and a stationary car in the parking lot.
Sheriff’s deputies started seeing a trend of distracted-driving related crashes several years ago, said Deputy Tim Erhardt, a resource officer at the high school. He helped start an educational campaign in which students competed with videos, posters and other materials for a program that eventually reached about 27,000 students.
The problem remains so prevalent, Erhardt said, that he got two radio calls about distracted-driving accidents while he was overseeing the simulations at Kenowa.
Students said the simulators helped them realize how easy it is to be distracted by not just texting but by passengers. Kevin Elliott, who crashed his video vehicle while sending a text, said he had talked to Jacob Freybler shortly before his fatal accident.
“He’d have been pretty happy to see people are learning from the mistakes he made,” said Elliott, a senior.
“He’s basically living his senior year,” said Karley Lynn Mead, a close friend, pointing to the gym full of students at the assembly. “He would feel proud, like, ‘Wow, people actually care.’”
A football game Oct. 3 is to be dedicated to Jacob and help raise money for a scholarship in his honor, with the sale of T-shirts, decals and wristbands.
Principal Katie Pennington said the effort was a way to help students heal from Freybler’s death while teaching them something valuable. “The more we can hammer them with this message, the more we can impact their behavior outside of school.”