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OSU student killed in distracted driving crash: ‘In a blink of an eye, it can be over’

Dom Tiberi tried to talk his daughter out of driving to Ohio State’s library for a late-night studying session.

But he didn’t want Maria Elizabeth Tiberi, 21, to feel stifled in her own home. So he didn’t push it.

“I had an uneasy feeling,” the father said. “I just didn’t want her to leave.”

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Less than four hours later, the front doorbell clanged five times quickly in succession, jerking Dom and his wife, Terri, from sleep.

“As I walked down the hall, I looked out the window and saw seven policemen standing on my front porch,” Tiberi emotionally recalled.

In 2013, Maria Elizabeth Tiberi was one of 3,154 people killed nationally in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“In a blink of an eye, it can be over,” he said.

Following the deadly crash, the Tiberis started The Maria Tiberi Foundation and have donated 44 driving simulators. As part of the foundation’s work, Dom Tiberi has visited 84 high schools, speaking to students.

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Dom Tiberi, a sports anchor at WBNS-TV in Columbus, described the emotional words last said to his daughter, a graphic design major, before she left their home.

“My wife said, ‘I love you Maria.’ And she said ‘I love you more,’” Tiberi recalled.

“And that was the last time we heard her voice.”

Maria was killed when the Toyota Corolla she was driving crashed into the rear of a stopped semi truck trailer on Interstate 270 at more than 50 mph. The crash in Hilliard happened three miles from the family’s house in Dublin, just several minutes after she left.

To this day, no one knows precisely why.

“We don’t know,” he said. “We wish we did. But clearly something happened for her to run into the back of a semi-truck at 53 mph.”

“We’ve been in shock ever since to be honest with you,” Tiberi said.

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Investigators ruled out alcohol, drugs, phone use and texting. “Clearly, something happened. I think that’s hardest part. We don’t know what happened.”

The number of accidents involving distracted driving have increased in the past two years. In 2016, there were 13,999 wrecks involving distracted driving compared to 13,271 in 2015.

“One of the lasting effects of this is, the emotional security blanket that we all have, by telling ourselves that something bad won’t happen to us — all that is taken away,” said Sharon Montgomery, whose husband John died in 2000 six weeks after a collision involving a distracted driver in Johnstown, Ohio.

“Oh yes: It can happen to me,” Montgomery said.

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Experiences involving distracted drivers don’t need to be traumatic to leave a lasting impact.

Centerville attorney Craig Matthews said he wasn’t hurt five years ago when a driver rear-ended him on Far Hills Avenue one evening while he drove home from work.

But the experience still shook him up. It changed the way he drives, making him more attentive to drivers behind him.

While stopped at a red light, he recalled, “I noticed in my rear-view mirror that a car was approaching me at full speed — 35, 40 mph.”

“Next thing, I know, I’m rear-ended.”

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He got out of his car, unhurt, and approached the other driver, who he said was crawling out from under her deployed airbag.

“She said, ‘Oh, I was reaching for something on the dashboard.’ … meanwhile, she had her phone in her hand,” Matthews said.

“It’s traumatic,” he added. “You’re jolted backwards suddenly, you hit your head against the backrest, then you’re jolted forward.

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“If she had been going a little bit faster, who knows what would have happened? It’s frightening.”

The driving simulators donated by the Tiberi Foundation have virtual driving stations with visual monitors — which they purchase in bulk at about $15,000 each, thanks to contributions. One was recently placed with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office, Tiberi said.

The simulators simulate drunk and distracted driving and force users at some point to text and drive, to get a feel for the dangers and lack of control inherent in distracted and drunk driving.

“It’s an emotional thing,” Tiberi said of speaking to high-schoolers. “You can hear a pin drop. It’s pretty impactful. And I think they’re getting it.”

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Sgt. Frank Simmons, a supervisor with the Ohio Highway Patrol Dayton post, said distracted, drunk, sleepy and generally impaired driving are all frighteningly similar.

“I think it goes well beyond the scope of electronic devices or somebody fixing their hair in the mirror,” Simmons said.

Tiberi pledged that the foundation’s work will go on.

“We need to be on top of a mountaintop screaming because it’s so preventable,” Tiberi said. “It’s an epidemic. It really is.”

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