Witnessing a tragedy brings a change in perspective

Photo of Shawn O'Brien. (Contributed by UFG)
Photo of Shawn O'Brien. (Contributed by UFG)


As a risk control representative for UFG Insurance in Cedar Rapids, it’s Shawn O’Brien’s job to spot potential risks. Yet nothing in his 25 years of experience could have prepared him for the events of Friday, July 15, 2011. Nor could he have ever predicted how that day would continue to shape his life and career in the years to come.

O’Brien was on his way from a meeting with a customer in Anamosa. Living in Springville at the time, it was a route he had taken numerous times and it was a beautiful summer day. He was looking forward to the weekend and spending time camping with his family.

Driving west behind an SUV, those carefree thoughts turned to shock in a matter of seconds. As an oncoming car rounded a curve in the road, it crossed the centerline, crashing nearly head-on into the vehicle in front of O’Brien. Swerving to miss the crash, O’Brien’s own SUV landed on its side in the ditch.

Two of the three occupants of the vehicle ahead of him died as a result of their injuries. O’Brien walked away with just a scratch on his elbow and a complete change in perspective. After learning that the crash could likely have been caused by the simple act of the driver reaching for a cell phone, O’Brien realized he could not let witnessing this tragedy pass without trying to do something to stop it from happening again.  

O’Brien is the first to admit that up until that day, he always used his cell phone while driving. With a job that requires him to be on the road during his workday, spending his drive time while talking with customers and co-workers was the norm.  Yet seeing the crash and knowing it was completely avoidable had a cell phone not been involved is what stuck with him.

“Using a cell phone while driving is a choice we make—a very selfish choice. Thinking ‘I’m going to do this in spite of everyone else because my text or my phone call is that important,’ yet it’s not,” says O’Brien. “It’s sad that it took such a tragic incident to make me believe in it so strongly. Unfortunately, I think that’s how most of us get there.”

O’Brien returned to work the following week with a new focus: to share the message that distracted driving is not worth it. He created a powerful PowerPoint presentation and began spreading his message through his work at UFG.

Seven years and numerous presentations later, O’Brien estimates hundreds of people have now likely heard his message. And while his main audiences began as business owners who are UFG customers, his powerful message is now requested at schools, community groups and conferences.

O’Brien’s experience and passion for sharing his story was also key in the development of a public service campaign UFG has developed, titled simply: “Worth it.”

Says O’Brien: “We all have things in our life that we value tremendously and no phone call is worth losing any one of those things.  Not just with cell phones, but with the eating and the hands-free devices, and everything else drivers do besides concentrating on the road. Nothing is worth it.”

For more statistics, information and educational content regarding distracted driving, visit ufgworthit.com

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