Distracted driving victim creates awareness campaign

Darien teen Rhea Bhat creates campaign to bring awareness to distracted driving.

Darien teen Rhea Bhat has been a dancer for 12 years. Two years ago, she had a very close call where she thought, for a moment, that she may never dance again.

After getting off her school bus, she was hit by a distracted driver while crossing the street. Now 14 and a freshman at Darien High School, Rhea has initiated a campaign to bring awareness to distracted driving.

“I was getting off the late bus from Middlesex Middle School, and was looking to cross Boston Post Road to get to my street,” Rhea said. “I looked both ways before I went to cross the road. I was about to turn left to cross the street and a truck hit me.”

The truck hit Rhea on her left arm and she fell back, and one of her legs and hips were bruised.

One of her neighbors who was driving by saw her and called 9-1-1.

“I saw my life flash before my eyes,” Rhea said. “I was in and out of consciousness. It was just so fast that I didn’t know what had happened.”

Rhea was sent to the hospital and was cleared for minor scrapes, bruises and injuries, and was able to go home on the same day. “My injuries took a while to heal and I wasn’t able to dance for a while afterwards either,” said Rhea, adding that it took about one to two months for her injuries to heal.

She later learned that the driver’s phone was ringing in the passenger seat, “and he took his eyes off the road for a second to see who was calling,” Rhea said.

The driver was given two tickets: One for crossing in front of a school bus and another for hitting a pedestrian.

From the incident, Rhea realized how “just one moment can change everything.”

Since the incident, Rhea has been speaking at a variety of functions in an effort to promote awareness of distracted driving and its consequences.

“I want to take the initiative and teach people that an innocent life being injured is not worth it,” she said, adding, that she feels lucky to have survived.

Last year, she reached out to the Darien Depot’s SADD chapter to share her story as an eighth grader, “and see what this group could do to help me come up with ideas for a campaign,” she said.

“They were so warm and welcoming, (that) I decided to join the group as a freshman, and they have supported my campaign ever since,” she said.

At SADD, she and fellow members entered PSA (public service announcement) video contests, and she has also created a video about her own experience.

In April, for Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Rhea was one of the panelists at the New York Auto Show in Manhattan. In front of more than 200 people, she shared her story and educated people on the effects of distracted driving, and ways it can be prevented.

Also, in the same month, she traveled to Hartford with representatives from AAA.

“AAA launched a new campaign called ‘Don’t Drive Intoxicated,’ and they asked me to be there with them and share a victim’s point of view,” she said, adding that there were about 80 people in attendance at the event.

More recently, Rhea was invited by state Sen Tony Hwang, a Republican who represents Fairfield, Easton, Newtown and parts of Weston and Westport, to a distracted driving awareness forum at the Newtown Town Hall.

“I was a part of a panel of experts to educate people in a variety of ways on this topic,” said Rhea. As part of the panel, she answered questions.

Last November, Rhea spoke at a Darien Board of Selectman meeting, as a member of SADD.

In addition, The Darien Police Association purchased magnetic bumper stickers with the words “RHEAlize the Danger”on them, along with a drawing of a vehicle. These are being distributed around town.

Rhea said her experiences as part of her campaign have showed her that public speaking is her calling. She is on the high school’s debate team, and is exploring law as a future career.

She partnered with the Fresh Green Light Driving School in Darien to produce a video on her story.

Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said she is “so greatly appreciates that Rhea is taking what was a very scary event in her life and turning it into an educational opportunity that we all can learn from. Thank goodness she wasn’t seriously injured or worse. Distracted driving is a significant problem and we each need to do our part in remembering that the vehicles we drive can turn into dangerous weapons if we lose focus.”

Tips to avoid distracted driving

  • Don’t eat or drink.
  • Limit fiddling with the radio and changing the volume or channel.
  • Don’t reach into the back seat to retrieve an item.
  • Keep all cellphones in the glove compartment.
  • Mute the ringer or turn off all cellphones.
  • Purchase an app that sends an automated message to the texter that the person is driving and can’t talk.

For more information on distracted driving awareness, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at nhtsa.gov.

sfox@darientimes.com