By Thomas Fields-Meyer
May 21, 2001 12:00 PM

Under foreboding skies the driver barreled into an intersection in rural Hilltown Township, Pa., and slammed straight into the rear passenger door of Patricia Pena’s Jeep Grand Cherokee—right where her only child, Morgan, 2½, was strapped into a safety seat. By the time the toddler was transferred to a Philadelphia hospital, it was too late. The next morning, Nov. 3, 1999, the girl died of massive head injuries, leaving Pena, who escaped with minor cuts and bruises, and her husband, Robert, completely devastated. “She was everything,” says Pena, 30. “Absolutely everything.”

Pena’s grief turned to fury when she learned the cause of the crash. The driver, Frederick Poust III, then 27, a part-time employee at a local college, had been dialing his cell phone when he ran the stop sign. “I was outraged,” she says. “I would never want to see this happen to another child.”

The Penas are not alone in their concern. Supermodel Niki Taylor suffered severe liver injury in an April 29 accident caused when the driver of the car she rode in leaned over to answer a cell phone. She remains in critical condition. And the Penas are on the warpath—with good reason. As many as 730,000 auto crashes in the U.S. each year are caused by cell phone use, with up to 1,100 of them resulting in deaths, according to Fran Bents of Dynamics Science, a firm that compiles highway safety statistics. As founder of Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, a loose national coalition of families who have lost loved ones in cell phone-related accidents, Pena is leading a nationwide effort to push for laws restricting phone use on the roads. Already, due in part to her efforts, at least a half dozen municipalities—including New York’s Westchester and Suffolk counties—have banned handheld cell phone use while driving, and nearly 40 states are considering laws. The ordinances are too new to have made a clear impact, but Westchester lawmaker Lou Mosiello says, “She’s struck a nerve.”

The first week of November 1999 was supposed to have marked Pena’s happy transition into the life of a stay-at-home mom. She had quit her job at a daycare center near her Perkasie, Pa., home and was enjoying her extra time with her cheerful, blonde daughter. That fatal Tuesday, they had visited Pena’s sister Jeanette Viniarski, 41, who trimmed Morgan’s bangs to help get her ready for her role as a flower girl in an upcoming wedding. When the weather turned foul around noon, Pena decided to head home. She was halfway there when the SUV hit her Jeep at 45 mph. An ambulance took Morgan to a local hospital and hours later to Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital, where Patti and Robert, 35, waited anxiously at her side until doctors could do no more.

“They didn’t want to live,” Pena’s mother, Dorothy Hudak, 65, says of Patti and Robert. “We had to sleep over to watch them.” Two days after she learned that a cell phone was to blame, Pena contacted Joe Conti, a state senator who had introduced legislation to ban handheld cell phones on the road. The day before Morgan’s funeral, he paid a painful visit to the Penas. “Okay,” Patti asked him, “what do you need me to do?” The answer was to tell her story—as she did four months later—before Pennsylvania legislators in Harrisburg. A month after that, she gave an emotional speech at a Yonkers, N.Y., rally for Westchester’s law. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says Mosiello. “People started to look at this as a serious issue.”

The activist role is a far cry from the modest life envisioned by Pena—the youngest of five children of Raymond, 68, a former machinist, and Dorothy, a retired military-base clerk. After marrying Robert, an engineer, in 1993, her focus was family. “Our goal was to have lots of children,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be home.” But with bills to pay, Pena worked on and off even after Morgan was born. In October 1999 the couple decided she could quit for good. “It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” she says.

The relief would not last long for Pena, who makes frequent public appearances and spends much of her day coordinating lobbying efforts. The Penas sued the driver who hit the Jeep, settling out of court for an undisclosed sum. But that did little to soothe Patti’s pain or diminish her activist zeal. “It was hard for her to keep talking about the accident,” says Robert, “but it did allow her to work herself through it.”

Now she has a different kind of consolation—a new baby, Olivia, born March 1. Still, thoughts of Morgan are never far away—particularly when Pena spots drivers yakking on their phones. She used to honk and urge them to stop; now Pena merely drives defensively, confident that the real impact will come through the legislation she is fighting for so passionately. “I just know,” she says, “that eventually their behavior will change.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Matt Birkbeck in Perkasie