On Sunday, at approximately 2:00 a.m., a wrong-way driver nearly killed at least 11 drivers in the Phoenix area before he was finally stopped by a vehicle he hit head on in Tempe. He was driving the wrong way on Loop 202 we he, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, rear-ended three vehicles on the Center Parkway overpass before traveling eastbound on the westbound lanes of Loop 202.
“Eleven drivers then contacted 911 shortly before 2 a.m. claiming Gregg, traveling in silver SUV, had almost hit them,” reported ABC15 News.
Gregg was not the only wrong way driver on Sunday night. There were two, and the two wrong way driving incidents on Sunday are just two of too many this year.
Yet, the Department of Public Safety and the Arizona Department of Transportation have rejected a simple and obvious opportunity to give the potential victims of wrong way drivers a fighting chance to get out of the way.
Listen to Buddy’s stepfather, Dean Scarlett, discuss the Buddy Alert bill with popular radio show host, James T. Harris.
That simple and obvious solution is called a Buddy Alert. It is named after Christopher Ruiz, who was murdered by a drunk driver who was driving the wrong way on Loop 303 in January 2016. Christopher, affectionately known as Buddy, had no warning that Robert Andrew Cadman was heading his way. Cadman was driving northbound in the southbound lanes on the Loop 303 when he collided head-on with Buddy, according to DPS. Both men died at the scene.
This year, Buddy’s bill, SB1151; introduced by Sen. Bob Worsley with bipartisan support, was killed without even getting a hearing due to the efforts of DPS. The bill was pretty basic:
A. The Department shall establish the buddy alert notification system as a quick response system designed to issue and coordinate alerts following the report of a motor vehicle that is traveling against the direction of traffic on a divided highway as described in subsection b of this section.
B. On the request of an authorized person at a law enforcement agency that is investigating a report described in paragraph 1 of this subsection, the department shall issue a Buddy Alert if all of the following conditions are met:
1. The Department has received a report of a motor vehicle that is traveling against the direction of traffic on a divided highway.
2. An approximate location of the motor vehicle is available for broadcast.
3. Public dissemination of available information may help avert harm to the public.
C. If the Department issues a buddy alert pursuant to this section, the department shall provide the Buddy Alert information to any other entity that provides similar notifications in this state.
Buddy’s stepfather, Dean Scarlett, discussed the Buddy Alert bill and the opposition to the bill by DPS with popular radio show host, James T. Harris:
Harris: Today we are talking to Dean Scarlett. Mr. Scarlett’s stepson was Christopher Ruiz was murdered by a drunk driver who was driving the wrong way on an Arizona freeway. That seems to be a big fat problem in the Phoenix area; people driving on the freeway. People say because the signs are not clearly marked, leads to confusion; especially when people are inebriated. Mr. Scarlett resides in Windsor Ontario, Canada with his wife and Christopher’s mother Deb.
Deb is from Arizona and the family spends considerable time here. This year the family tried to work with lawmakers to create a “Buddy Alert.” Christopher was affectionately known as Buddy and an alert named after him would warn drivers that a wrong way driver was coming at them so they could safely get out of the way. Governor Ducey and his crew at the Arizona Department of Transportation would have no part of it and stopped the bill before it even got out of the gate. I wanted to talk to Mr. Scarlett about this.
Can you tell us about you, your family and Christopher?
Scarlett: As you mentioned my wife and I live in Windsor Ontario which is just across from Detroit. She has been here now with me for about 15 years and as you said we spend a lot of time back in the Valley. We are both entrepreneurs. My wife recently sold a nurse staffing company that she had owned for many years. I own an advanced engineering and technology company. We’re operating in Canada, the US, and Mexico. But really the core and what you asked about, getting into it. It is really about our family.
It is really how we live our lives and what we live for. We are blessed. We have an outstanding family. It is large across both sides and we really try to stay connected as best we can. Even here, a smaller part of our family is located here. Our extended family is all over. That goes whether it is our kids, grand kids; whatever it is. We kind of build all of our lives, and trips, and travels around family, and making sure we stay as connected as we can.
In respect to Christopher, even though Buddy was my stepson, I knew him for 17 years. I thought of him really more as a son. We were close enough in age that he was someone that I thought of as a brother. He was a close friend. Just all those little things woven into a single person. When I lost Buddy, I can candidly say that it was the greatest sense of loss that I have ever felt in my entire life.
Christopher was an incredible human being. All the adjectives that you use to describe people that are outstanding individuals. He was those things. Great guy with all of his family. Protective. Selfless. Playful. Mischievous. Hard working guy. Super dedicated to anything he was involved in. He was a role model to all around him. All of those things bundled into one. Sometimes I step back and say is it really accurate? It is. People ask – could he have been all those things? He was. He was a glue, and a huge part of why our family is as amazing as it is.
Harris: How did he end up losing his life? We know it was a drunk driving incident but can you explain the wrong way driving incident?
Scarlett: I’ll never forget it. It was a Sunday morning, January the 10th and Buddy had been with a couple friends that night watching motocross. That was a passion of Buddy’s; loved to ride motocross. They had been watching it and it was just after midnight and Buddy decided it was time to head back home, and he lived out in the west side of the Valley.
He was on the 303, he was in the far lane. Essentially he looked up all of a sudden there is a vehicle driving 90 plus miles per hour. Really no escape route as we heard from police and witnesses on the scene. A semi was on one side of him; he was effectively boxed in. There was no place for him to go. It was a head on collision. It was instant.
Like I said, it was a Sunday morning and you can imagine. It is a three hour time gap. When I get a call on my cell phone at 7:00 a.m. local time here, and its 4:00 a.m. there, I know that’s never good. In my wildest imagination you never think that is coming at you. I remember taking the call from my brother-in-law Ryan and I remember going to my wife in the bathroom where she had finished a shower. My daughter is here and my ten year old Ella; is here with her friend. We have a full day planned. Full of fun things, and I know I’m about ready to literally destroy my wife and change her life forever.
Harris: This is January 10th. What year?
Scarlett: Last year. It is a year that you can’t even fathom.
Harris: There are no words, but I thank you for coming on because after Buddy’s death you and your wife wanted to change things. I want you to describe a few people you have met along the way to try and create a law that would spare people.
Scarlett: You touched on it, you said it a couple of times. For anyone in the Valley spending time watching news or reading the papers we know that it is a problem. It is happening weekly, sometimes more than that. As I mentioned, Deb and I are both entrepreneurs. Deb is the most strong-willed person you’ve ever met. Just ferociously tenacious. Very competitive spirit. We are both type A’s. Like I said, she was broken. She is broken. She is changed forever. She got to a point where she said, you know what? It began as a rallying cry to honor Christopher’s legacy. That’s really what it was all about.
Once she really started diving further into the topic and realizing what a problem it was it became a little more than that. She said we would stay up at night talking about and she would say there is an opportunity here to create something that is going to be really good. Not even just Phoenix but people in Arizona and possibly across the nation. There is a bigger idea here where maybe we can do something that is lasting. It is gonna honor Christopher. How do we do that and how do I do that? From that point we started really talking about ways to leverage existing technology or infrastructure. What can we do to make things a little easier to move? She started talking and she said it best. Christopher; everyone called him Buddy. That’s how we knew him. Doesn’t it make sense to think of this as a Buddy Alert? That resounded well.
From there we started talking about how do we promote this? It fed off this whole idea with what you see in an Amber Alert or a Silver Alert. But it was a little more meaningful and on our visits to Arizona we would always see this overhead signage. She said is there not a reason why on the first sign of a 911 call coming in that that can’t somehow link into the overhead. That was the premise of how it got going. It is interesting, you start to get resourceful and you start to figure out how you wanna do things. You do meet some incredible people along the way. Two people in particular who have been amazing advocates and helping us with this journey and really learning a lot about how to navigate the political arena; Kathleen Winn and Armando Reese.
Harris: Wonderful people.
Scarlett: Both of them. I can’t say enough about them. I’ve sat down in meetings with them in the State offices. They’ve been great. Deb created this really incredible Facebook tribute page for Christopher but really built upon of bringing awareness to this whole problem of wrong way driving. Really presenting facts, and statistics, and really good data. It is a living and breathing page that she maintains. The whole purpose was to promote awareness. With 18,000 followers later without really spending any money it is amazing how much of a lightning rod this whole topic is for the whole Valley.
The people who are regularly writing in and talking about their experiences and just resonating the need to have something like this is really phenomenal. I think combined with momentum along with some of the feedback we were getting from people like Cathleen and Armando just really suggested the time was right to really push forward with this. That is when we moved into the next steps to speak with government and lawmakers.
Harris: The system would warn drivers about a wrong way driving situation ahead of time. You were in the process of telling us about the journey you had. It was up to the point where you were now starting to meet with politicians. You now have introductions with government officials and I want to give you a chance to continue.
Scarlett: So it was at this point we were moving into the final quarter of 2016 where we had a little bit of traction. A little bit of opportunity to link up with people that we thought would have some influence. Again, Kathleen and Armando spear-headed a lot of that. This was where things got a little bit different. Now you start relying on people like that because as entrepreneurs that we are, our knowledge of working with day to day government officials is practically nil. It is just not an arena that we have dealt with or are comfortable with. The first thing that I would say is that Deb and I were used to being able to get things done quickly.
When we want to do something with our own businesses we execute. I think the journey we were about to encounter was one that we just really didn’t understand the slowness, the bureaucracy associated with the way things work. So with that being said we had a very very important meeting that was set up back in December with Alberto Gutier, the Director of Highway Safety and John Carlson who is the Director of Public Relations for ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation. Myself, Kathleen and Armando got together in Alberto’s office. Again the purpose of the meeting was to explain in more detail a concept of what Buddy Alert was. It was the most unusual hour and a half I’ve ever had. It was a feel good meeting. They really emphasized that they understood the importance of the alert. They talked about the need to have something like this that would protect their families. Talking about how this was a very easy low cost way to build a report with the community. It is such a problem. They said all the right things. As I was leaving that meeting, I was saying to myself that went really well but I’m waiting for the speed bump. What next. They did talk about the things they were doing to curb this problem.
Even though momentum seemed to be going their way, Scarlett received a message from Winn, who said that four hours before the bill was to be considered there was surprise opposition to the project. There was no explanation as the push back came from ADOT. According to Winn, while ADOT had been neutral on the bill itself, they suddenly claimed that they already had a warning system similar to Buddy Alert.
“On the surface I said this is okay because they are using the technology the way they are supposed to. The hypocrisy on top of it though was very upsetting. I am very happy and thankful that people were able to have their lives saved as a result of that technology. The issue is that the technology is not being used regularly. We know that. And to paraphrase the words that I got from Alberto Gutier the day that we met, he couldn’t talk enough with John Carlson about the amount of good will that comes via attaching and humanizing this warning system in memorializing someone like Christopher who lost his life in this manner. It is a rallying cry to the community and it does so much more than just saying, sporadically, every once in a while if you feel like putting it up that there is a wrong way driver.”
For now, Scarlett is still hoping that the Senate bill will be considered in the future. For now he is pushing to have the current system, which ADOT claims is being used on occasion, to be used consistently.
For those who wish to learn more about Buddy Alert and the rest of the story of Christopher visit https://www.facebook.com/drunkdrivingkillsandruinslives/