Shelton’s Carri Fennel Shares How a Moment of Distracted Driving Can Ruin Lives
Carri Fennel is probably the last person you’d expect to have a felony conviction on her record. The Shelton woman is one of the most caring and compassionate teachers at Shelton’s CHOICE High School, an alternative education program, and her family is admired throughout the community. Yet all it took was one mistake on her drive to work in September 2009 to wreck the lives of two families—her own and that of the pedestrian she nearly killed as a result of texting and driving.
Fennel does not feel sorry for herself, and she does not expect others to do so. But nearly a decade after she made this poor decision, her story shows the magnitude of destruction that can result from just one brief moment of distraction behind the wheel.
“You just never, in your wildest dreams, think you’d ever harm a person,” Fennel says. “You’re not being aware. You’re not paying attention, and you just change the lives of not just one person, but it’s a ripple effect that’s just astronomical.”
Flash back to September 2009: Washington had just banned texting while driving the previous year, and distracted driving was a hot topic. “My son was still in high school, and we were constantly telling our kids to pay attention and be aware,” Fennel says. “I typically am an aware person. I had just left my phone in the car the night before.”
When Fennel got in her minivan for her drive to work on that fateful morning, she noticed a text message waiting for her on that phone. Against her better judgment, she attempted to reply, and, as she did so, her vehicle drifted toward a small group of pedestrians, including a male neighbor. By the time she hit the brakes, it was too late. Her vehicle struck the man, sending him into the air, with his head striking the pavement as he landed. The victim, whose name is being withheld for privacy considerations, suffered broken bones in his legs and back, and brain injuries that eventually left him in the care of relatives, with whom he still lives today.
A few months later, Fennel pleaded guilty to vehicular assault, and her sentence included fines, community service and probation. She doesn’t remember much about the first few years after the crash. She uses the word “incapacitated” to describe her state of mind during this period. The meetings with attorneys are just a blur (she and her husband settled a lawsuit filed by the victim’s family). Her family used to attend the same church as the victim and his family, but Fennel stopped going there, because she felt as though it would be too painful for the victim to see her. She says she didn’t drive for more than four years after the collision. Instead, she rode her bike, took the bus, or relied on her husband and kids for transportation.
Stacey Anderson, the principal at CHOICE, says Fennel was devastated after the collision and “wanted to pay restitution.” Fennel asked Anderson if she could talk at assemblies to prevent this from happening to anyone else. A year or two later, Fennel began sharing her story, and the story of her victim, at the area’s school assemblies. She also appeared in a documentary that emphasizes the dangers of texting while driving. The documentary was created by members of Shelton High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions in the 2010-11 school year.
Although Fennel’s speaking schedule at other area schools has slowed down over the past two years, she still discusses distracted driving with students at her own school, and she has a strong message for all motorists.
“It is very difficult to live with the fact that I know that I nearly killed somebody, and I completely impacted the lives of everybody around us,” she says. “It really left his kids without a dad, and it left the community feeling overwhelmed.”
“So this one thing that you think is so important, that you have to deal with in your car, is just nothing compared to the damage you can cause.”
—Written by Rob Bhatt