If you’ve been in the Air Force for a while, you might know the name Gary Kunich. He worked for European Stars and Stripes around the time I first entered the Air Force in 1999. He retired in 2006 as a master sergeant, but he has never put down the pen: today he writes for local publications in his adopted hometown of Kenosha, Wis.
Today, he has a new message, one that he’s asking everyone to help spread: “Don’t drive distracted. Put away your electronic devices before you start your engine.”
It’s a message he can’t spread by himself, but it’s one that might have saved his son.
Kunich shared tragic news with a group of military public affairs professionals via Facebook Aug. 14: Devin Kunich, 21, had died a few days earlier when a car hit his bicycle along County Highway H in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., in the early hours of Aug. 7.
According to Pleasant Prairie Police Department reports, visibility was poor: the stretch of County Highway H where the accident occurred has no street lights, and a fog blanketed the area. Devin was riding north, on his way home from the Bristol, Wis., Renaissance Faire, where, according to his obituary, he was captain of the Black Swan swing ride.
At the same time, 18-year-old Quashae Taylor was driving along the same road. She was driving without her glasses and had been talking off and on to her boyfriend on her cellphone. She closed her eyes for what she described as a “long blink” as she answered her phone again at approximately 12:45 a.m.
Taylor probably never saw Devin before she hit his bicycle from behind. The impact flipped him onto her car, where he lay for almost six seconds before falling off. Police would later find his backpack, personal belongings and bicycle seat strewn in a 300-foot trail from the impact site.
Taylor slowed down, called 911 and stopped at the intersection of County Highway H and State Highway 165, a mile north of the accident scene. The paramedics who responded pronounced Devin dead at the scene.
As tragically as the events unfolded, one thing stuck out at me: the police reported that Devin was wearing dark clothing at the time of the accident and was not wearing a helmet. They later found a light which may have been on his bicycle at the time of impact.
I talked with one of my co-workers about the situation on Aug. 15. At the time, police had reported not finding any lights or rear reflectors on Devin’s bike. I asked my co-worker, a fellow bicyclist, how I could write a story without mentioning that it might have been impossible for anyone to see Devin until the last second? Neither of us had a good answer.
That answer came a couple of days later, on the evening of Aug. 17. I was talking to my wife as we walked through Garden of the Gods Park, and as I posed the same question to her, I recalled a similar event about a year ago.
I was driving north along Chelton Road, just north of Fountain Boulevard in Colorado Springs, about an hour after dark. A bicyclist, dressed in dark clothing and with no lights on his bicycle, seemingly appeared out of nowhere. I had maybe half a second to swerve just enough to avoid him – and I probably missed him by less than a foot.
Half a second. The blink of an eye.
What if I had been trying to answer my phone instead of paying attention to the road?
Quashae Taylor has no prior record, no criminal history, not even a traffic ticket. Prosecutors have charged her with negligent homicide: she faces up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The blink of an eye changed her life.
Devin Kunich is dead. The blink of an eye ended his.
Gary and Ruth Kunich must live the rest of their lives without their son. Gary told me he doesn’t want her to face extensive jail time but does want “some jail time and accountability.”
“The hard part is struggling with the forgiveness (balanced with) the accountability,” he said.
But more importantly, Gary and Ruth want people to put the phone away before turning the ignition.
So please, hang up and drive.
Photos: Devin Kunich poses for a photo at the Bristol, Wis., Renaissance Faire in this photo taken by his father, retired Master Sgt. Gary Kunich. Devin was killed shortly after midnight Aug. 8, 2011, by a distracted driver as he was bicycling home from the faire. (Courtesy photo)