The grieving family of a Leamington man who likely died while texting and driving is hoping their tragic story will be a wakeup call to others who refuse to put down their phones.

Michael Martin in 2014
Courtesy of Martin family / Windsor Star

Michael Martin, 39, died New Year’s Eve when his Ford SUV slammed head-on into a taxi carrying five people. His family said Essex County OPP told them they believe he was texting and driving.

“People think that it’s a harmless thing, checking that one quick text and responding to it,” said his niece, Juniper Martin, 16. “But the whole game can change in any second, and we just don’t want any other family to experience what we’ve experienced in the past 48 hours.”

The two-vehicle crash happened Dec. 31 around 8:10 p.m. on Highway 77 in Leamington. Martin was alone in his vehicle, which collided with a Dodge minivan taxi. The driver of the taxi and four passengers were all taken to hospital. Essex County OPP said their injuries ranged from minor to serious.

Highway 77 between County Road 18 and Mersea Road 5 was closed for several hours while the OPP investigated.

Juniper Martin said police have her uncle’s cellphone. She said investigators also told the family that the roads were clear at the time and he had not been drinking.

“He was on his way back from a New Year’s party,” she said. “He was going home, they believe. They smelled no alcohol on him so they know he wasn’t drinking. They suspected that he was texting his girlfriend and he just crossed the line into head-on traffic and collided with a cab.”

Police wouldn’t confirm if texting and driving was a cause of the collision, but they have said they don’t expect to lay any charges. They have also previously warned that texting and driving is a growing and deadly scourge on Ontario highways.

Statistics for 2017 were not available Tuesday. But provincial police have said 2016 was the fourth consecutive year that distracted drivers were responsible for the highest number of lives lost on Ontario roads. An inattentive driver was either a contributing factor or the primary cause of crashes that killed 65 people on OPP-patrolled roads alone. Distracted driving caused more deaths than the other “big four” categories that included speeding, alcohol and not wearing a seatbelt.

According to the Canadian Automobile Association website, people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or a close call than drivers who are not distracted. About 26 per cent of all car crashes involved phone use, including hands-free talking. Checking a text for five seconds at 90 km/h is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field blindfolded, according to the CAA.

Juniper Martin said her uncle’s accident is even more tragic because his distracted driving also hurt other people.

“The whole cab was full of people as well,” she said. “They were heading to a New Year’s party. It’s just terrible that somebody so close to us has hurt them.”

She said her uncle also leaves behind two sons, Logan Graham, 16, and Bailey Debergh, 20. According to an obituary notice from Reid Funeral Home, he is also survived by his parents, Bonnie and Wayne Martin, and three siblings.

“He was totally one of those stereotypical dads with the barbecue,” said Juniper. “He also loved hanging out with his friends. He went hunting and fishing with his friends.”

She said she only got to see him a few times a year because she lives in British Columbia, but they had a good relationship.

“He was always looking out for me,” she said. “I remember at my grandma’s house, he would come and visit when we were in Ontario and we’d play in the backyard, we’d always goof around.”

Juniper said she learned of the tragic accident shortly after waking up when her grandfather called.

“I heard my mom scream and cry, it was terrible,” said Martin. “I just want people to drive safe and be mindful when they’re driving.”

Source: Windsor Star