Life in small-town Texas lends itself to a certain narrative. For young boys in Odessa, it usually goes something like this.
You dream of suiting up for Odessa Permian and shining under the Friday night lights in front of friends and family. Maybe you’re a star player who earns a full-ride ticket to college. Maybe you never make it off the bench.
It doesn’t matter; you wore the Panthers black and white, which makes you a hero to the next generation.
After graduation, you marry your high school sweetheart and land a job in the oil field. It’s hard work, but it pays well.
With your nest egg secure, you buy a little piece of land, build a modest home, start a family and watch your children live out the same narrative you did.
John Teague has spent the majority of his life in Odessa, but he aspired to tell a different story.
“I always wanted to be a military mortician,” said John. “My mom was a nurse, and I grew up hanging around hospitals and nursing homes and visiting with the patients. I was always around death, and I knew what I wanted to do.”
After high school, John got a job as a funeral director apprentice. From there, he tried to enlist, but he couldn’t pass the physical.
That wasn’t the last time circumstances beyond John’s control would alter his life’s course.
On October 10, 2010, John lost his 22-year-old son Dustin in a motor vehicle accident.
“Dustin and his wife were arguing, and she was texting us at the same time,” remembered John. “They drove into the center median, overcorrected and flew into the ditch.”
Dustin’s wife was injured, but she survived. Dustin, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle. He died at the scene, leaving behind a wife and a one-and-half-year-old son.
In an interview with the Odessa American, John’s wife, Shannon, shared her grief in the months after Dustin’s death.
“I couldn’t think of anything worse happening,” said Shannon. “I just kept thinking nobody loves their kids as much as I do.”
If you believe bad news comes in bunches, what happened next won’t surprise you.
In the six weeks following Dustin’s death, 13 other Odessa families would mourn the loss of their children in automobile accidents. The common denominator: distracted driving.
If you know your Texas history, you know the oil and gas industry operates in a boom/bust cycle. In the late 1980s, a surplus of oil, combined with decreasing demand, sent the industry into a tailspin. Prices plummeted, and rigs that once pumped Texas crude 24/7 stood as rusted relics of a bygone era.
But by the mid 90’s, oil and gas was well into recovery mode. As production increased, so did the demand for trucks to transport water, sand and oil. So John went to truck driving school, earned his Class A CDL in 1996, and landed a job driving in the oilfield as an owner/operator.
Maneuvering industrial trucks down rural dirt roads is fraught with hazards. For one thing, their high center of gravity makes them susceptible to rollovers. They’re also heavy, which increases the distance required to slow down or stop.
“You’ve got to watch your speed,” said John. “People will cut a big truck off in a heartbeat. When you’re hauling 80,000 pounds, you can’t stop on a dime. It might take you the length of three football fields to come to a complete stop.”
Compounding the issue was a drastically different regulatory environment in the mid-90’s than we’re accustomed to today.
“Back then, a lot of things were different. You didn’t have all the DOT and OSHA rules,” said John. “You could get by with a lot more. I saw accidents that made me change the way I approached my job.”
Working as an owner/operator was perfect for a self-motivated person who enjoyed the freedom to set his own schedule.
“The more I drove, the more I got paid,” explained John.
That’s an important principle in John’s line of work that we’ll revisit later. For now, just know that as John’s finances grew, time with family shrank.
“There were times I’d be out on the road for two weeks,” said John. “When my kids were little, I missed a lot. I was ready to spend more time at home with my family.”
Dustin’s death only reinforced that desire, inspiring John to climb out of his big rig and sending him down a new path.
|Distracted driving by the numbers
Motor vehicle accidents account for 40 percent of work-related fatalities, more than any other accident type. – Bureau of Labor Statistics
10 percent of drivers under the age of 20 who were involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. , more than any other age group.Distractions.gov
Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded. – Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
A quarter of teens respond to at least one text message every time they drive. Furthermore, 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit they hold extended, multi-message text conversations while driving. – University of Michigan Transportation Institute
Grief has a way of consuming us. Hobbies that used to give us joy take a back seat to sorrow. Sleep, when our minds allow it, is typically fleeting and always fitful.
Even our job becomes a pesky inconvenience that distracts us from the important work of immersing ourselves in our pain.
John and Shannon don’t believe it has to be that way.
In 2011, they launched an Odessa chapter of Compassionate Friends. The nonprofit organization provides understanding and hope to bereaved parents, siblings, grandparents and other family members during the natural grieving process after a child dies.
Once a month, John and Shannon host about 50 Odessa-area families who meet, share their stories and work toward healing. Motor vehicle accidents represent the most common causes of their loss.
The people Compassionate Friends serves don’t just need a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. They need the companionship of someone who knows first-hand how it feels to be immobilized by grief.
They need people like Brenda Dunn.
Brenda lost two adult children over a five-year span in the early ‘90s. In 2008, she lost a grandchild in a rollover accident. Today, Brenda channels her experiences toward helping others as a Compassionate Friends chapter leader.
“I’ve dealt with the death of a child three times and in three different ways,” said Brenda in a 2012 Odessa-American interview. “It gives me a sense of satisfaction to help parents after their children have died. We let them know they’re not by themselves, because we’re all walking in the same shoes.”
Few would argue that Compassionate Friends is an admirable calling and a selfless way to treat the symptoms of what’s ailing us. But the Teagues are far more interested in a cure.
John has parlayed his passion for ending distracted driving into speaking engagements at schools, businesses and community organizations. In 2013, his reputation landed him squarely on the Texas Legislature’s radar.
Mr. Teague goes to Austin
Long before cell phones, GPS and MP3 players, drivers found ways to pass time behind the wheel. Whether we were tending to our kids in the back seat, listening to an incendiary talk show or simply eating lunch on the way to a meeting, we were not focused on the task at hand.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Americans are accomplishing more from the driver’s seat than ever:
- Get directions to the nearest burger joint: check.
- Dial into a conference call: check.
- Adjust your music playlist: check.
This 30-second video explains that texting isn’t the only distraction drivers contend with. Anything that takes your hands, eyes and mind off the task at hand is a distraction that can carry fatal consequences.
Unfortunately, what passes for efficiency is really a reckless habit that takes our hands, eyes and minds off driving. Too often, the consequences are fatal.
In 2014, distracted driving was a factor in 100,825 traffic crashes in Texas, according to the
Texas Department of Transportation. Those crashes resulted in 3,214 serious injuries and 468 deaths.
Austin and 39 other Texas cities have responded by passing laws that prohibit drivers from texting behind the wheel. Still, Texas remains one of only four states that have not passed a statewide ban. That will change if the Teagues have anything to say about it.
In 2013, John and Shannon traveled to Austin in support of a bill authored by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. They met with legislators, transportation committees and anyone else who would listen. Ultimately, the bill didn’t pass, but that didn’t put the brakes on the movement.
Team Teague tried again in 2015. With new support from credible organizations such as the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the Texas departments of Public Safety and Transportation, the group hoped for a different outcome. Again, they were turned away.
It’s no secret Texans are an independent breed that does not tolerate infringements on our personal rights. Shannon Teague is no exception. But she has a message for all of us.
“I’m against new laws in general. I agree with you,” said Shannon during a 2013 interview with the Odessa-American. “But this law, this is like the ban on DWI. We took that right away from people, to drink and drive, to keep people safe. We did it, and it helped.”
Despite his bill’s 2015 failure, Rep. Craddick saw fit to issue a resolution honoring John’s efforts. John admits it all probably sounds cooler than it was. There was no red carpet, marching band or speech by a high-profile government official.
“I actually had no idea it was coming,” said John. “It just showed up in the mail one day.”
Nevertheless, John appreciates the recognition. He’s quick to clarify, however, that honorary resolutions are not his objective. He and Shannon promise to be back in the Capital City in 2017, 2019 and however many years it takes to get a statewide texting ban in place. They understand the price tag that comes with distracted driving. Sometimes, it feels like a debt they will never pay off.
Oil busts and the financial hardships that come with them haven’t always been the bane of Odessa residents’ existence. In fact, that dubious distinction once belonged to a New York-born author named
Bissinger moved to Odessa in 1988 to write a tell-all expose on Permian Panther football. His tales of racial discrimination and players receiving unfair advantages in the classroom made him Public Enemy #1 in Odessa for the better part of 30 years.
In a region where basketball and baseball are temporary diversions until spring football practice starts, the Teagues are an exception. Ice hockey is their sport, and to a man – and woman – they’re good at it.
Dustin made the JV hockey team in high school. He went on to play for the Midland Bulldogs, along with his brother, Chaise, and his sister, Devin.
Most would agree teens’ interests are as fickle as Central Texas weather, but Devin’s affinity for hockey was more than a passing fancy. A 2008 interview with the Odessa-American captured 14-year-old Devin’s passion for the sport.
“Forget the dolls and bottles – they suck – just put me in skates and feed me the puck,” said Devin. “I’d rather skate than do anything else. If I had to, I’d choose skating over boys.”
When the accident happened, Devin was ranked the 17th best female hockey player in the country. Her skills earned her a Junior Olympics tryout and a full-ride scholarship to Buffalo State.
It seems the West Texas narrative didn’t suit Devin any better than it suited her father. But just as Dustin’s death nudged John down a different path, it also altered Devin’s course.
“Dustin had always told her, ‘Go where you want to go, and I’ll go with you,’” recalled John. “The accident changed her goals. She turned down the scholarship and chose to stay close to mom and dad.”
A path of reckoning
John and Shannon have made it their lives’ work to spare other families the pain they’ve lived with since the accident.
In addition to their work with Compassionate Friends, the Teagues launched a local chapter of stopdistractions.org. The grassroots nonprofit promotes safe driving habits and helps victims affected by distracted driving.
“We’re waiting for our 501© status, and then we’ll jump in and start holding events,” said John. “We want to get a driving simulator to take around the country. We’re doing it out of pocket, so we need to raise funds.”
In his “spare time,” John serves on the West Texas Safety Training Center board of directors, the ASSE National Transportation Committee and the NSC National Transportation Safety Committee.
Given John’s hectic schedule, you can’t blame well-wishers for urging him to “slow down” and “smell the roses” now and then. But he lost that luxury the night he lost Dustin. That was the night safety became a path of reckoning for John and Shannon.