One Year. One Law. One Morgan
story by kathryn schiliro - file photos
Family of Caleb Sorohan reflects on a year of lobbying and education
It's been a little more than a year since state Senate Bill 360 – the "Caleb Sorohan Act for Saving Lives by Preventing Texting While Driving" – went into effect on July 1, 2010.
A Morgan County native, Caleb lost his life in December 2009 in an accident that involved his texting while he was driving through Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge.
Not intending Caleb's death to be in vain, by the end of the following legislative session there was a bill, Caleb's Law, that made it illegal for drivers in the state of Georgia to text while behind the wheel. Largely due to the lobbying efforts of Caleb's family and friends – students from Morgan County High School – it passed through both the state Senate and House of Representatives, was signed into law by then-Governor Sonny Perdue and went into effect within six months of Caleb's death.
Difficult as the passage of Caleb's Law was, family and friends knew the hardest part wasn't over.
"I think when we left the capitol...I remember Ms. Saylor saying the hard part came when we had to educate," Alex Sorohan, Caleb's sister, said.
Since the passage of the bill, Alex and nine other MCHS students were part of an anti-texting while driving presentation. They created it themselves.
"We all spoke to all these students on different points of view about it, about texting while driving and how it can affect you in different ways," Alex said. "Jonina Frische (another MCHS student), her mother was in the car Caleb hit, so she talks too. We use our stories to try and have an impact on teens."
The presentation uses pictures, statistics and videos to help drive the point home.
"We try to hit it from all points so if someone doesn't pick up from one thing, they pick up from something else," Alex said. "I think it's harder for teens to listen to adults speaking to them because they can't relate... Hopefully they can understand a little bit better where we're coming from."
Dave Belton, a Morgan County Board of Education member and proponent of Caleb's Law, stood by the Sorohan family and friends throughout the process, accompanying the group to the state capitol and helping to lobby for the legislation.
"She didn't just pass the law and say, 'I'm done,' she's continuing the work," Belton said of Alex.
He's seen Alex at work, and is in awe of her public speaking skills. That's what makes the presentation, which he calls "youth-friendly" and "hip," so effective.
"She's funny, ha ha ha, then all of a sudden she drops a bomb on you; it's this huge emotional blow," Belton said.
So far, Alex and company have taken the presentation to high schools as far away as Madison County. Alex and her mother, Mandi, spoke at two conferences this summer – the Life Savers conference in Phoenix, Ariz., a national convention dedicated to highway safety, and a Governor's Office of Highway Safety (GOHS) conference in Savannah.
For the upcoming school year, Alex hopes to take the presentation to even farther reaches of the state. In fact, Governor Deal and the GOHS are applying for a federal grant that may allow Alex to take the presentation to a different high school every two weeks. The decision on that grant should come back by the beginning of October.
In the meantime, Alex has plans to revamp the presentation for this school year, something she, other presenters and MCHS teacher Amy Saylor, the administrator for the presentation, have been working on all last school year and this summer. Six spots in the presentation now have to be filled, as those six spots were previously occupied by already-graduated seniors.
This year, Alex's younger brother, Griffin, who will be a freshman at MCHS, will join the presentation.
"He can join in the fun," Alex said.
Asked about how she will keep up with school while getting the anti-texting while driving message out every two weeks, Alex is not worried. She's already received the blessing of MCHS Principal Dr. Mark Wilson.
"The best thing about Morgan County High School is people will work with you," Alex said. "We're going to be held to getting our work done and understanding it."
In addition to keeping the presentation moving from school to school, Alex, her family and friends have been approached by colleges, civic organizations and church groups about giving their presentation. They are working to create a DVD that will allow them to move the message to places they can't reach. They are also working with law enforcement on ways to make Caleb's Law more police-friendly and enforceable.
"Even if they (police officers) don't write a ticket, if they think someone's texting while driving, just pull them over and give them a warning or say, 'You know this is against the law' instead of not trying to do anything," Mandi said. "That's what we're running into with some of the police officers: they feel like they can't really do anything."
"We're going to try and work on making it a more enforceable law or making something to help police officers with that," Alex said.
Nonetheless, Belton said, "We do feel like laws change behavior."
"We weren't expecting it to happen overnight," Alex said.
Until they're satisfied with the reach of their message, it seems Alex, Mandi and company won't rest. Their work provides catharsis.
"I think it helped us," Alex said. "I definitely think it would've been harder if Caleb had just died and we said, 'OK, he's gone.' This is something Caleb would want because he liked to help people so much. It's helping us keep his memory alive. The community is behind us so much, it keeps us going strong with this."
Printed in the August 18, 2011 edition