Seven years after losing her husband in a distracted-driving crash, Jennifer Zamora-Jamison has lost a daughter, too.
In 2007, Zamora-Jamison’s husband, Iraq war veteran Javier Zamora, was killed on a California highway by a driver fumbling to pick up a cellphone under a seat. The couple’s teenage daughter, Maxine, was with her father and survived the crash, but she struggled emotionally for the rest of her life.
On Oct. 14, Maxine — a 22-year-old married mother of a 2-year-old girl living in Fort Worth — ended her life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to relatives and authorities.
Though other circumstances may have contributed to Maxine’s death, Zamora-Jamison is convinced that she has now lost two loved ones to distracted driving.
“I’m a little bit more angry this time,” said Zamora-Jamison, a Roanoke resident who plans to tell her story to Texas lawmakers after the legislative session starts Jan. 13. “I’m a little bit more angry at their lack of concern about the safety on our roadways. I’ve lost too many people in my family to do this again.”
Texas is one of six states without a ban on texting at the wheel. The others are Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana and Oklahoma, according to Jennifer Smith, executive director of StopDistractions.org, an organization that pushes for tougher laws.
The dangerous practice has become socially taboo and the topic of numerous advertising campaigns, ranging from shocking public service videos to such slogans as “Driving While Intexticated” and “Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks.”
In Texas, where 1 in 5 crashes is caused by distracted driving, lawmakers are preparing once again to do battle over whether banning the use of mobile devices by drivers is a necessary public safety measure or a governmental intrusion on personal freedom.
Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed a bill last week that would ban texting while driving statewide. He noted that 38 Texas cities already have bans but that the result is “a patchwork of local ordinances that confuses drivers.”
“The Texas Legislature has a responsibility to give our law enforcement officers the tools they need to make our roadways safer,” Craddick said in an email.
But observers say it’s unclear whether proponents of a ban will have better luck this legislative session. Nearly four years ago, the Legislature enacted a statewide ban on texting while driving, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it, calling it “government micromanagement.”
Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has said he also opposes a statewide ban.
Intrusion vs. safety
Although previous attempts at a ban enjoyed bipartisan support, the Legislature has more Republican members affiliated with the Tea Party than ever before. Those lawmakers could perceive a proposed texting ban as a waste of time when issues such as cutting spending and bolstering border security are at stake, observers say.
“The biggest reason it hasn’t been adopted in previous sessions is because of the beliefs of some that it’s just more government and it’s just intrusive on individuals,” said Vic Suhm, who follows legislation as executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition.
“If you look at what happened in the elections, I think probably more of the folks who believe like that won than the folks who believe our duty is more public safety. I see almost each session as having a little bit more of a libertarian bent than the previous session.”
Skeptics note that Texas law already bars drivers from using electronic devices in school zones. And cities are free to pass bans as they see fit.
Critics also question whether police will have enough proof of a violation to write a ticket.
For example, Arlington is among the larger cities to enact a ban on texting while driving. During the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, Arlington police wrote a total of 381 tickets — 318 for motorists caught using a wireless device in a school zone and only 63 for drivers improperly using a device outside a school zone.
Austin, El Paso and San Antonio have also banned texting while driving.
Despite the political debate, few disagree that using a mobile device while driving is dangerous.
Nearly 1 in 5 crashes involves a distracted driver, Texas Department of Transportation research shows. Of the 3,377 deaths in traffic crashes in Texas in 2013, 460, or 14 percent, involved a distracted driver, according to the department.
By comparison, 1,059 deaths, or 32 percent, involved a drunken driver.
Living in California, Maxine was just 15 years old on Aug. 26, 2007, when she went back-to-school shopping with her dad, an Army helicopter gunner who months earlier had returned from war duty in Iraq.
The rest of the family, including her mother and three siblings, had moved to North Texas. Her mom — also a military veteran — had taken a job as an aviation weather specialist with Lockheed Martin.
Maxine and her father were set to join the rest of the family in Texas after Javier Zamora completed his military obligation.
But on that day, tragedy struck.
On a highway in Southern California, Zamora and Maxine were traveling in an Oldsmobile Bravada, a small sport utility vehicle. They were struck head-on by a Honda sedan driven by a woman who took her eyes off the road while fumbling to pick up her cellphone.
Zamora’s seat was partially severed from the floor, and as the vehicle rolled, he was pushed through a space between the door and the roof, family members recounted. He suffered massive head trauma, and emergency responders struggled to free him from a tangle of roadside barbed wire.
Zamora died on the helicopter ride to the hospital. He left behind a wife, three biological children — including Maxine — and a stepdaughter.
For years, Maxine told her mom that she couldn’t remember the crash. But eventually her mom found a journal in Maxine’s room, with entries confirming that she remembered quite a bit of that terrible day.
“She had to witness all that destruction,” said Zamora-Jamison, who has remarried and taken another job in far north Fort Worth. “Even though physically she was unharmed, I don’t think she ever recovered emotionally from the loss.”
Maxine underwent counseling available through the military but mostly expressed her grief through art. She had a tattoo that covered her back — and it included a poetic tribute to her father.
My heart still aches in sadness, and secret tears still flow. What it meant to lose you, no one will ever know.
The tattoo included a colorful image of her dad’s dog tags, just below the back of her neck.
Maxine began working as an exotic dancer at several Fort Worth-area clubs, her mother said. On a trip to Las Vegas, she married Craig Polizzo. She had a baby girl, whom she named Faith Marie Polizzo, now 2 years old.
‘Her dad was her idol’
Maxine also traveled with her mom to Austin and appeared at the Capitol to rally for tougher laws on texting while driving. She partnered with her mom in a nonprofit known as Decide2Drive.org, in memory of her father.
“It’s true. Her dad was her idol,” Craig Polizzo said. “She talked about him all the time.”
At one Austin appearance in 2009, she carried a large poster with a photograph of her father in his Army helmet and battle fatigues. But even taking up a political cause didn’t seem to help her cope with the loss of her dad.
In recent weeks, she had talked about having the enormous tattoo on her back removed or covered, her mom said. Maxine recognized that the grief over her father’s death had consumed her for too many years.
Despite all the sadness, Maxine’s death came somewhat suddenly.
On Oct. 14, she had an argument with her husband at their home in the 4900 block of Mobile Drive, northeast of Interstate 35W and Meacham Boulevard, her mom said. At some point, Maxine went into another room, retrieved a gun, put it to her head and pulled the trigger.
She lived long enough for her heart, kidneys, liver and one lung to be harvested for donation, her mom said.
The official cause of death is pending toxicology tests and a review of records, but those are routine, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office.
“There is no indication that this case is anything other than suicide,” spokeswoman Linda Anderson said.
Many other factors may have contributed to Maxine’s suicide. But her mom knows what lies at the heart of the matter: Maxine lived until 2014, but a large part of her died with her dad in 2007, on a California highway.
“Maxine struggled through high school and through her marriage and even through her ‘mommyhood’ with the loss of not having her daddy there,” Zamora-Jamison said. “And then having to witness people every day on the roadways doing the same thing that took her father’s life. … I think it was too much for her.”
Staff writer Susan Schrock contributed to this report.