EAST CHICAGO | When Rosemary Quiñones saw her 6-year-old autistic child chase a ball from her front yard into the street, she ran out and screamed "No!"
A driver stopped just inches from her son, Justin Orange.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh God, had this been a distracted driver, he would have been seriously injured or killed.'"
The near tragedy in front of her Roxana neighborhood home prompted Quiñones to take action, beginning a local campaign to change the way drivers think. She has joined the war against texting while driving.
In some states, texting while driving is considered as dangerous as driving drunk.
Indiana state Rep. Joe Pearson, D-Hartford City, said texting while driving is especially dangerous because it takes a driver's eyes off the road, hands off the steering wheel and mind off of driving.
"If we're going to text and drive at the same time, it's a very lethal combination," Pearson said. He said more than 6,000 Americans were killed in 2009 due to distracted driving, including texting while driving.
On Feb. 2, the Indiana House approved a statewide ban on sending text messages while driving, voting 95-3. But a similar bill introduced in the state Senate failed to make it out of committee before the session ended in March, said state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago.
"I'm perplexed it did not pass," Randolph said, adding he hopes to work with other senators to prepare a bill for the 2011 session.
Illinois legislators approved a texting ban that went into effect Jan. 1. It stipulates that "a person may not operate a motor vehicle on a roadway while using an electronic communication device to compose, send, or read an electronic message."
Randolph said the Illinois law will provide impetus when Indiana legislators again attempt to pass a similar law.
"If we can enforce a seat belt law, we can enforce a no-texting-and-driving one," he said.
Quiñones hopes she can do her part. At the forefront of her memory is the day of the near-accident.
Having just watched a recorded segment of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on Oprah Winfrey's campaign against texting while driving, Quiñones' first instinct was to call her Democratic precinct committeeman. She asked if she could address the membership at the next district meeting. Next, she went to the Internet to download Winfrey's anti-texting pledge.
"I'm not Oprah, but I realized that we have to do something to protect our children, to speak for the children who could not speak for themselves," she said.
In the following six weeks, Quiñones -- a single mother of five children who range from 11 months to 8 years old -- convinced her committeeman and 2nd District East Chicago Councilman Lenny Franciski to take part. They are helping her open doors to address schools. She contacted the United Way. She called her alma mater, East Chicago Central High School.
But her main resource would be Indiana University Northwest, where she is a criminal justice student, president of the IUN criminal justice student association and a senator on the IUN student council.
Quiñones set an initial goal of 300 signed pledges from IUN students, and by the end of one week she had gathered 365. She even started the No Phone Zone Awareness Activist Group to reach further out into Lake and Porter counties to get more signatures. Her new pledge goal is 500. After collecting 52 signatures Thursday in Merrillville at an American Family Insurance office, Quiñones had secured 463 signed pledges.
When Randolph heard about Quiñones' efforts, he said he would be happy to sign a pledge.
"I'd also be happy to have her be a witness when we get the bill into committee," Randolph said. "She can bring her 500 pledges and, even better, bring the 500 folks that signed."
Quiñones said she uses every signature opportunity to hold a conversation and personally appeal to change a driver's behavior, recognizing that signing a pledge does not change someone's commitment.
"I want to plant the seed to make people think differently," she said. "And one day, I would like to tell Oprah how she inspired me to change my community."
She is surprised how her activism is gaining momentum. American Family Insurance agent/owner and former University of Iowa football player Daryl J. Kenney learned of her efforts and offered to have the group use his office to make as many pledge copies as needed.
"(The pledge campaign) is a fantastic thing," Kenney said. "As an agent, I am very conscious of safe driving when it comes to teen drivers. This is an opportunity for us to address this issue. (Texting and driving) is a culprit in deaths across the country."
Her children, especially autistic son Justin, remain Quiñones' motivation.
"(Justin) is my world. He is that rare special diamond that I have to take care of," she said. "I remember when they said he could never walk, or talk. But today he talks, engages in conversation and is social."
Quiñones will be collecting signatures again Wednesday at the Merrillville insurance location.
"What's next?" she said. "I'll probably push for 1,000 signatures."
How to get involved:
To get a copy of the pledge, go to: oprah.com/packages/no-phone-zone.html
For more information, contact Rosemary Quiñones at (219) 545-7240
To sign the pledge, go to American Family Insurance at 1523 U.S. 30, Merrillville, on Wednesday.
To stir up legislative support, contact state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, at (219) 397-5531.