– May 18, 1994
The 18th of May, 1994, started like any other day for the Norton family of Seattle. Dee was in the middle of the very early morning shift of his job as a reporter for The Seattle Times. Jackie, his wife, was buried in work at the exchange student office at the University of Washington, and Jana, their daughter, was busy tutoring math and English students at Shoreline Community College.
When an editor discovered some facts were missing from a story left by the overnight crew, he sent Dee rushing to the county courthouse to dig out the missing facts from a file there. He grumbled to himself that this was becoming too common an occurrence.
Quickly dealing with the paperwork to request the correct file, he speed read the papers until he found what he needed to make the story complete, took some notes, returned the file to the clerk and raced to a pay telephone, jammed a quarter in the slot and dialed the city desk number.
At that point his family’s life went to hell. Nick, his editor and sometime flyfishing companion interrupted Dee’s rapid accounting of the no longer missing information. “Forget that. There is a problem with C.J. You need to go to your son’s home. Do you want me to send someone with you?”
Nick said nothing more, giving no details of “the problem.” Dee, sensing the worst, replied that he would pick up his wife and daughter on the way. He phoned Jackie and repeated Nick’s words. She shrieked, “Oh no.” She said she would call Jana. He tore from the courthouse filled with dark dread.
Wheeling his big van through traffic toward the university campus, Dee’s head filled with images of the blond three-year-old grandson who at times scowled just like Dee’s dad. C.J., short for Cameron James, was the focus of the lives of every member of the Norton family. And their only grandchild. The big, strong and bubbly guy spent about half his time with his grandparents and aunt to avoid day care bugs.
With Jackie in the van, silence overwhelmed them. There were no words to express their dread. It was the same when Jana and her electric wheeled chair joined them for the trip to the suburb of Lynnwood and the Amberwood Apartment complex where Dee’s son Cam, his wife Carol and C.J. lived. Words were unneeded. Fear overpowered them.
Their worst fears were confirmed when they carefully rolled into the parking lot. After parking, they saw C.J.’s prized possession, a tiny new bicycle with training wheels, bent and twisted under the back of a scruffy white delivery truck.
Their faces were awash with tears as Jackie and Jana found Carol and Dee found Cam. Blubbering through his sobs, the muscular Cam said he had returned from running an errand, watched and waved to C.J. and his buddy Andrew and turned when C.J. said, “Daddy, I love you.” Cam was off work recovering from a construction job injury.
C.J. told his dad he and Andrew were “racing” their bikes side by side amid the other kids using the parking area as their playground.
Cam said he walked through their unit’s sliding glass patio door, poured a cup of coffee and whirled to the sound of a metallic scraping sound in the parking lot. It happened that quickly.
“My baby was dead under that damned truck,” Cam bellowed. He said he had raced to scoop up C.J. But it was too late. Father and grandfather glared at the truck that had not only backed over C.J. but then, according to authorities, drove forward over him a second time and narrowly missed Andrew.
Dee moved toward the truck where medics were huddled at its rear open door. He was quickly intercepted by a Washington State Patrol captain and led to a far corner of the parking lot, obviously concerned about an angry confrontation.
Reality crept into his mind as the captain explained, “The truck driver is in the back of his truck and in very bad shape. He has five kids of his own. He is going to the hospital.”
Still glaring at the truck, from Baby Diaper Service, Dee asked the captain, “where are the mirrors,” meaning the large round convex mirrors mounted on the top left rear corner of Federal Express trucks. Naïve, Dee thought they were required on all delivery trucks.
“They are not required,” the captain said. Dee, still glaring at the truck, vowed aloud, “They will be, dammit, if I have anything to say about it.” The captain said Baby Diaper Service and the driver would be issued citations because both side mirrors were unusable because of yellowing caused by multiple old cracks.
To himself, Dee noted that would be too late for C.J. He was forever gone from the Norton’s lives.
No more jumping from the kitchen counter shouting “Cawabunga.” No more saying, “Don’t see me” whenever a fascinated grandfather or grandmother whipped out a camera to snap a photo. No more sitting on the footboard of his aunts wheeled chair. No more showing his fascination with potato bugs when he helped his grandmother in the garden.
Gone was Jana’s anticipation of teaching her nephew beginning arithmetic and grammar. Gone was Jackie’s cookie-making helper and gardening assistant. Gone were Dee’s hopes of getting his grandson started fishing and then into flyfishing and to understand the importance of releasing his catch. Gone were all of the family’s hopes for helping its youngest member get off to a proper start so well begun by Cam and Carol. Gone was the face that grinned at Carol as he brushed his teeth.
The captain’s words—“They are not required”— burned in Dee’s mind. He didn’t sleep at all that night. Before dawn he gave up trying and went to his computer. He wrote C.J. a letter, explaining the family’s love for him, its hopes for his future and a pledge, a vow, to find meaning for his death.
The fury born that day and night became all-consuming about 10 days later. Cam and Carol had moved to another apartment complex. One morning Cam walked to his car and saw a Baby Diaper Service truck backing up its parking lot. Cam waved it to a stop and told the driver, “You don’t have to backup. There is a traffic turn around down there and there are two other entrances.”
The truck driver’s shocking response was “What’s it to you.”
Cam amazingly withheld his temper and bluntly told the driver in basic words why.
The driver said, “Oh, OK.” But the same driver backed the same truck in the same way the very next morning. It was obvious to Cam, Carol and the family that that driver and the company didn’t care at all that one of its trucks had killed.
Dee, Jackie and Jana had long discussions about how to deal with blindly back delivery trucks. When Dee returned to work at The Times more than a week later he found a personal note from its publisher, Frank Blethen. It said he would do anything he could to help the family.
Dee took that literally. After dealing with the early morning work as usual, he enlisted the help of Sandy, a top flight researcher in The Times library. As her work load allowed she promised to dig out every story and research report available on backing delivery truck crashes.
Then he began running up a long distance telephone bill, first calling United Parcel Service headquarters in Atlanta. After three calls with no response, he sent a letter and then a second letter. He hoped that because UPS was founded in Seattle, it would be willing to be helpful and supply information on its backing safety equipment and training.
Two weeks passed without any response at all from UPS. To hell with them, he said, and dialed for Federal Express in Memphis and was quickly connected to Don Tullos, its safety boss.
Tullos discussed at length how Federal Express came to install rear crossview mirrors on the back of its delivery trucks in the early-1980’s when they had a substantial problem with backing crashes. While attending a trade show saw a mirror that he thought might be adapted to solve the problem.
Working with Don Kolenda of K-10 Enterprises, the mirror—which became the rear crossview mirror—was adapted to the needs of Federal Express, Tullos said. He then had to overcome some opposition from within the corporation. Eventually he convinced its president to test the new devices on all delivery trucks in four hub cities for one year.
The result was astounding: a 37 % reduction in backing crashes. Tullos declined to give details, saying they were proprietary information that would help the competition.
At that point, the Norton family knew where it wanted to go: to the legislature with a proposed bill to require rear crossview mirrors on delivery trucks.
Even though Dee had covered some legislative matters and Jackie and Jana had lobbied for increased educational funding of disabled children, the family’s early effort was not very polished. And the opposition was tough. First, a lawyer/analyst for the Legislative Transportation Committee said the law we wanted was impossible. She said the commerce clause of the U.S. constitution prevented the state from adopting such a law and cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling as proof.
Dee called the University of Washington Law School library and got a copy of the ruling and discovered the lawyer/analyst was very wrong. In the ruling, Justice William O. Douglas said specifically that states have very broad police powers in issues involving public safety.
Later he learned that the lawyer/analyst was very upset with him and accused him of being too aggressive. Then Dee was called by a state senator from a very conservative area of the state who told him to not bring the bill back again to the legislature. Dee hung up in shock. Who the heck could not want to protect little kids from big dangerous trucks, he grumbled aloud.
Back to the legislature the family went, with an improved bill fine tuned by several legislative staff members. Dee was accompanied by a representative of Teamsters Local 174 that represented Puget Sound area drivers for United Parcel Service. Sponsors quickly signed onto the bill and it was filed.
Dee had already obtained permission from his managing editor to file and lobby for the backing safety bill, so long as he didn’t attempt to write stories for The Times about it. That was obvious because of ethical considerations.
That was 1995 and for the next three years Dee worked two jobs, one as an amateur lobbyist in Olympia in the mornings and at The Times as a reporter on a new schedule in the afternoon and evenings. Five days a week for three to six months a year for three years he rolled out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to shower, gulp some coffee and drive the 80-miles to Olympia for appointments arranged by telephone.
When he was not lobbying, Dee was pumping out letters and mailing them to organizations and individuals on a mailing list that rapidly grew to more than 800 names all over the country.
In the fall of 1995, Dee cancelled plans for five days of steelhead fishing so he could use his vacation time to produce more letters. Several times there were so many letters stacked on his desk that Jackie said he should slow down because they didn’t have money for that many stamps.
Early in 1995, he had filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration a petition for rulemaking to require rear crossview mirrors on all new delivery trucks. The petition was accepted and the agency began researching the size of the backing crash problem and the effectiveness of rear crossview mirrors.
In quick order the family learned of two other tragedies, of Joey Henderson in rural Ruby, N. Y., and Rebecca Lasc in the Seattle suburb of Kent. Both died under trucks of United Parcel Service and fueled Dee’s drive even further. Gary Stoltz, driver of the truck that struck Rebecca, had stopped and walked around it to be sure his backing path was clear before turning it around. He honked its horn as required by company policy and Rebecca thought that was the sound of an ice cream truck and darted from the home into the path of the truck.
Stoltz was fired by UPS even though he had a perfect driving record. And then police cited him for reckless backing. Eventually the charge was dismissed and the judge warned UPS it should consider installing rear crossview mirrors on its delivery trucks. And the Teamsters won him his job back.
Joey was riding his small bicycle in his home’s circular driveway when the brown truck arrived with a delivery for the business the family operates from its home. During Dee’s third call to the family, Dawn, Joey’s mother, collected her emotions and declared she wanted to work for a state law there.
Dee sent her a package of information and another when more requested data arrived. And another. And another. And he learned from Dawn that UPS trucks had continued to make deliveries to the home despite the traumatized family’s request to stop them.
In fact, she told him, the driver who killed Joey waved at her in traffic one day. Then Joey’s older brother ran away, apparently because a UPS truck had made another delivery. He blamed Dawn, who said they had to hire a counselor to help Joey’s brother through the pain.
Dawn said she had never been to Albany, the state capitol. But she began learning about lobbying government the hard way. She said hearings were cancelled at the last minute, without explanation.
While Dee struggled to make Washington lawmakers understand the need for rear crossview mirrors, Dawn was doing the same thing on the other side of the country.
At one Olympia hearing, the executive director of the Washington Trucking Associations introduced an attorney who announced that the law the Norton’s sought would not be enforceable by the state unless it was approved by the federal secretary of transportation.
At that point, Senator Ed Heavey, who was the first to sign on as a sponsor of C.J.’s Bill, exploded all over the attorney, bluntly telling him what he said was not true and that he knew it.
At each hearing in which the Norton family testified, they displayed a large photo of C.J. and a rear crossview mirror. For some reason some legislators had trouble understanding how the mirror worked. That was cured when Dee was told by Mike Ryherd, a labor lobbyist and coach for the family, that several stairways in legislative office buildings had similar mirrors mounted in them so legislators and staff members could see around a corner and avoid bumping into each other as they ran up or down the stairs.
There was a problem with C.J.’s Bill. It did not at that point require electronic sensing devices and that upset Sense Technologies, Inc., a Vancouver, B.C. firm that produces and markets Guardian Alert, a Doppler radar unit.
A unit was demonstrated for the family and found to have the same fault as the infrared and ultra-sound units demonstrated for the family earlier. It did not cover the areas off the end of a vehicle’s rear bumper. Officers of Sense Technologies said that would not be a problem to fix, they would reprogram the mini-computer and did. The next demonstration proved that Guardian Alert had been modified to cover an area about three-feet to each side of the vehicle.
C.J.’s Bill was modified to include electronic sensing devices although the Nortons were reluctant to include infrared and ultra-sound devices. But language could not be found to separate them from the far more effective Doppler radar system.
At the next hearing, Sense Technologies officials supported C.J.’s Bill as did several delivery companies and numerous police and fire department organizations, plus the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.
In the fall of 1997, after Dee had sent another barrage of letters to key legislators, the Legislative Transportation Committee met to prepare for the coming lawmaking session. Luckily for the Nortons, committee chair Rep. Karen Schmidt was on vacation in Mexico. She had told other legislators, Dee was told, that “Who does he think he is. He is too aggressive” and had refused to meet with him.
Schmidt had turned committee leadership over to Rep. Paul Zellinsky, Sr., a high school acquaintance of Dee’s. Zellinsky was not up to the job of blocking the bill when Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and several other powerful Democrats declared, “We must pass the bill.”
The committee quickly rejected a State Patrol report that said rear crossview mirrors were only marginally effective and ordered that it be rewritten showing far stronger support. A major rapidly did just that and the committee instructed its members in the House and the Senate to push C.J.’s Bill.
When Dee heard this from Mike Ryherd, he had to sit down. Regaining his breath, he rushed to find Zellinsky and a copy of the newest version of the bill. Zellinsky didn’t have a copy and indicate he didn’t care what Dee did. It was clear he had simply been overpowered by Sen. Haugen and others.
When Dee finally got a copy of the revised bill, he discovered it omitted electronic sensing devices. Dee and Jackie inserted them in the revised bill, in longhand because a hearing on it was less than an hour away.
At that point, Ryherd asked to read their prepared statements. In blunt words, Ryherd told the couple to shorten them a lot. “They have heard all of this from you before and repeating it will use their time and make them mad,” he said.
So Dee and Jackie hacked their long and carefully worded statements to only a few sentences, which they delivered at the hearing and said thank you.
The bill was recommended “Do Pass” by the Senate Transportation Committee and sent on to that chambers Rules Committee. It passed there, with a nudge from Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, and was sent to the House.
For a hearing there several days later, Rep. Karen Schmidt, House Transportation Committee chair, actually smiled at Dee and Jackie when she called them to testify. This made Dee nervous because she had refused to meet with him earlier.
But even she voted for the bill as it breezed through the committee and was sent to the House Rules Committee, ending the hearing and testifying process. During the drive home, the Nortons debated what needed to be done, what they should do next. They were fearful of something derailing their effort if they did not keep the pressure on the legislators.
Their answer: When it doubt, write letters. Concise, one-page letters were sent to all members of the Senate Rules Committee, reminding them that he had talked to them several tunes during the last two legislative sessions and that the Norton family was not going away.
Then the agony of waiting and watching TVS television broadcasts of legislative sessions began. The family checked with some of their coaches about whether there was a schedule for calling bills for action on the floor. They were told there was no arranged schedule. It was simply a matter of when a legislator with an interest in a particular bill thought the time was right. And, the Nortons worried, there was always the possibility of vote trading.
Day after day passed with Dee’s eyes glued to the television set in living room or another in the downstairs recreation room. He fidgeted and fussed about having nothing he could do to influence the outcome. He drafted a thank you letter to be sent to legislators and rewrote it numerous times just to pass time.
Finally, at 9:55 a.m. on Feb. 10, 1998, the bill was called to the floor of the House and passed 86 to 10. The “Nay” votes were cast by members of the Republican leadership.
The family was felt it was halfway home. But there was more agony of waiting. When the Senate sessions were not broadcast, Dee went for long walks. And more walks.
At 5:53 p.m. on March 14, the bill was called to the floor of the Senate and passed with nine “Nays” and Ryherd called to ask “Who were the nine dummies.” Again, they were Republicans, one of them being Sen. Dan McDonald who had promised the Nortons in an unsolicited letter that he would support the bill.
Instead of sending the thank you letter he had rewritten so often, Dee he made one more drive to Olympia to personally thank those who had helped the family. He took a lot of time doing this. And outside the office of one, he encountered the executive director of the Washington Trucking Associations. He looked up when Dee approached and didn’t bother to stand. He reluctantly offered his hand to Dee’s, saying only “Well, you beat us.”
Several days later a woman in Gov. Gary Locke’s office called Dee and wanted to know how many members of the family would be attending the signing ceremony. He said, “All of them,” Cam and Carol, Scott, Judy and Cassy, Jackie, Jana and Dee.
The governor personally selected C.J.’s Bill as the first bill he would sign into law. Family members were given pens the governor used to sign the bill into law.
Driving home that afternoon was a strange experience for the Norton family. In their euphoria, they thought there was nothing to do. How wrong they were, they realized after a little though. They had forgotten about the petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That had to be pushed.
And then Dee discovered that the state attorney general’s office had not fulfilled its role. Someone in that office was to notify all law enforcement agencies in the state of new laws effecting their work.
Instead of waiting, Dee wrote a letter about C.J’s Law and sent it and a copy of the law and the administrative code that implements the law to all city, county and tribal police departments in the state, more than 125 of them. Then two Seattle motorcycle officers came to the Norton home because of the letter Dee sent the SPD chief and was asked to explain the law. He even got a chance to demonstrate how rear crossview mirrors work on the canopy of his pickup truck and also the Guardian Alert Doppler radar system works on the family’s van.
Sense Technologies had provided Dee with a Guardian Alert unit to test after he agreed to work with the firm for a federal backing safety law, but with the understanding that Dee would still work first for rear crossview mirrors.
Sense Technologies flew Dee to Washington, D.C. to lobby for an as yet unwritten bill.
After returning home, Dee got a very excited call from Dawn Henderson. Her bill had passed one house of the New York legislature. A few days later, she called again and said it had passed the New York Senate and was sent to Gov.George Pataki, who indicated he would sign it. Pataki had vetoed an earlier backing safety bill because it was too broadly written and would have jeopardized federal funding for highways. The revised bill was much simpler and did not endanger federal funding.
The Nortons joked that now there were two states down, only 48 to go. And then went to work again to build support for the petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Dee discovered that the petition apparently had been had been pushed onto a back burner after NHTSA had issued a proposed rule to require rear crossview mirrors or electronic sensing devices on all delivery trucks. Dee suspected that was caused by pressure from a large leader in the delivery industry.
Sense Technologies then flew Dee to San Diego to speak at a memorial service for traffic victims. News coverage of that event was overwhelmed by the Sept. 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center. Soon after that the company changed its focus from working for a federal law to retail sales.
Not long after that, Dee was called by Dan Whetter, an attorney in Green Bay, Wisc., seeking information about rear crossview mirrors. Whetter represents a woman backed over and dragged by a backing UPS truck in a store parking lot.
Dee sent Whetter two huge stacks of documents plus a long letter explaining everything he had learned during the long struggle, plus a list of others who could offer information and background. Whetter then asked if he would be willing to testify as an expert witness. Dee jumped at the opportunity and was scheduled to testify Nov. 19 in Green Bay.
Whetter and a UPS attorney from Atlanta then flew to Seattle to take Dee’s deposition. But UPS attorneys convinced the judge hearing the case that he did not meet the criteria of an expert witness.
After sending another barrage of letters and emails, Dee was contacted by Janette Fennell of Kids ‘n Cars and offered a chance to speak at a press conference in Washington, D.C., about rear crossview mirrors.
The day before he left for Washington, he was called by the office of Senator Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. He was asked to meet with Senator Murray. He could not agree fast enough.
At a meeting after the press conference with leaders of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a strategy was developed to ask Senator Murray to use her leverage on the NHTSA budget to move the petition forward. That message was presented to Senator Murray and her staff.
After returning home, Dee received an email from Janette Fennell with a list of eight members of Congress that she had lobbied during another trip to Washington, D.C. Dee quickly fired off letters to those eight, plus all other members of Senator Murray’s committee.
Within a surprising few days, he had in hand a response from Senator Barbara Mikulski, saying that she had written NHTSA, telling the agency to write Dee with an explanation of their delay and to send her a copy of that. As this is written in early December NHTSA has not yet responded.
The Norton family knows none of its hard work will bring back its beloved C.J. But it also knows that winning this battle for backing safety laws will save young lives and give meaning to their loss.
Please contact Dee Norton at [email protected] for more information.