Four Seconds of Digital Distraction

Anna Levitan: Losing Our Eldest Daughter to a Distracted Driver in Just 4 Seconds

July 3, 2021

It started off as any blue-sky day in July. I was at our beach house in Georgia, preparing to return to our home in Milton, Massachusetts to meet up with my husband Rich and our daughter Hunter (then 16) and son Joe (then 13). Plans for our Fourth of July celebration with friends back in New England were well underway.

It was July 2, 2013.

None of us can remember much about that day. Hunter later recalled she and her friend Annie were planning what they were going to wear to the parade. It involved red, white and blue nail polish. Joe was most likely swinging a golf club at a public course somewhere near Milton, Massachusetts, our then hometown. After golf, he would somehow wind up at his friend Jack’s house.

It’s these little things we four find ourselves pondering. Because they represent the simple things in life, so meaningless at the time. Before everything changed. Before we lost Merritt. When we were a family of five.

My husband called around 4:00 pm that afternoon. The call no parent wants to receive. The one where time stands still. Now going on eight years, I’m still undone by the memory of my husband’s words and his message. The crack in his voice.

“Get to Memphis. There’s been an accident. We might lose her.”

Merritt, our beautiful, perfect, intelligent, kind, and, I’ll write it again, perfect, eldest daughter, 18-years-old, Hunter and Joe’s older sister, was about two weeks into a cross country bike trip with a leadership adventure group. She had just graduated from her high school, Milton Academy, and before entering Colgate University in the fall, Merritt wanted to challenge herself.

She was just that kinda girl. Up for a challenge. Determined. Driven. A leader. And fun. So, so fun. And goofy. Her laugh was contagious. And her smile, we miss that.

We miss everything about her.

A Type 1 Diabetic, Merritt had trained for the 3,000 mile trip from South Carolina to California. She was in the shape of her life. Everyone in the group was. I’d even call them elite athletes. On July 1, they had biked almost 1,000 miles and crossed the Mississippi River. On July 2, they were on a country road just outside of McCrory, Arkansas when a young driver texting behind the wheel plowed into the group of 13 bikers, critically injuring four, including Merritt. She would be the only one to die.

We lost Merritt on July 3, 2013.

I remember every second of that day. We all do.

We received a post card from Merritt – her gift to us – about two weeks after we lost her. She wrote she was having the time of her life and had never been so happy. She loved the group and the experience. She was happy to be “off the grid” and living in the moment. Merritt was “living more.”

TextLess Live More was founded by Merritt’s friends at Milton Academy in September 2013. So undone by her tragic death that summer, her grieving friends wanted to unpack and address the very issue that killed her: digital distraction. Their mission was to teach their peers the very real consequences of living distracted and especially how getting behind the wheel distracted can be deadly.  

You see, it’s all connected.

If we don’t take digital distraction seriously and teach our children how to use technology wisely and appropriately, then they might end up in a tragic situation where you can’t take four seconds back. No matter how hard you try. No matter how sorry you are. No matter what you would do differently.  

Actions have consequences.

And while every second of every day we want to go back to any day before July 2, 2013, we know we can’t. Because life doesn’t work that way. When someone you love is killed –even if that death is unintentional and a tragic, tragic error of judgment or lack or education because a 21-year-old driver doesn’t know that texting behind-the-wheel can kill – we can’t have Merritt back.

The driver can’t have his life back.

Hunter and Joe can’t have their sister back–or their lives back.

Merritt’s friends can’t have their bestie back–or their lives back.

Everyone is impacted. Forever.

Because of four seconds of digital distraction.

Thank you for taking this message to heart. Thank you for ending distracted driving. Thank you for addressing digital distraction.

Thank you for texting less to live more–in honor of Merritt.

A mother.

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