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Mitchell man remembered by buddies; other driver was texting

Jon Christensen's racing buddies will be thinking of him when they head to Pierre today to race at Oahe Speedway.

They said their farewells on Friday -- at Christensen's wake.

"It's the way Jon would have wanted it," said longtime friend Bryan Dixon. "He would have been with us and he wouldn't want us to miss the racing."

Christensen, 44, was stopped on his motorcycle behind two other vehicles at a Highway 38 construction site Monday when he was hit from behind by a pickup whose driver was distracted while using his cell phone. He died before reaching the hospital.

Christensen's death has set the racing community abuzz, and a photo of one of his cars is posted on the Oahe racing website, according to Dixon, a Mitchell businessman.

Such incidents are increasing with alarming frequency, said District 17 state Rep. Eldon Nygaard, D-Vermillion.

In 2009 and 2010 Nygaard sponsored legislation that would have banned the use of hand-held electronic devices in motor vehicles.

House Bill 1142 should have passed in February, he said, but it was sent to the House State Affairs Committee before it was killed. The bill was co-sponsored by state House Majority Leader Bob Faehn, R-Watertown, and Rep. Patrick Kirschman, D-Sioux Falls; and Sens. Sandy Jerstad, D-Sioux Falls, and Jim Peterson, D-Revillo.

"We were backed by the insurance companies, the auto manufacturers, law enforcement, and state, county and city officials -- there was no reason it shouldn't have passed," he said.

Nygaard said he will to try once more in 2011 to pass even tougher legislation and he plans to fight harder this time. He believes public sentiment is swinging in favor of some form of cell phone legislation.

"I plan on getting more restrictive with it this year," Nygaard said. "I think we need to ban the use of hands-on cell phones totally."

Nygaard called texting while driving "insanity on wheels."

Initial reports from the South Dakota State Patrol said that Justin Iburg was distracted by his cell phone just prior to the accident. Patrol Lt. Alan Welsh confirmed Friday that Justin Iburg admitted checking text messages prior to the crash.

Trooper Caleb Walters, who was in charge at the crash scene, verified that, Welsh said.

It's long past time for drivers to put aside their hand-held phones, Nygaard said.

"Hands-free technology now exists that will allow drivers to use cell phones and still keep their eyes on the road and their hands on their steering wheels," he said.

Nygaard who will be seeking a Senate seat this year, must first get re-elected, but he said he's already lining up support and testimony from families affected by phone-caused crashes.

He said opponents of his previous bill have charged that a cell phone bill would be too tough to police. Others said that it would be abridgment of personal freedom.

Nygaard believes the need for increased public safety is eclipsing any vague notion of personal freedom, and that legislators on both sides of the aisle are beginning to see the need for some kind of legislation.

"I don't want to be free to be run down by someone who's texting when I'm sitting on the road and abiding by the law," said Nygaard, who also discards the premise that policing phone use is difficult. Cell phone records can easily verify when a phone is being used, he said.

Nygaard said he took his first shot at cell phone legislation in 2009 after the deaths of his high school friend, Charles Sorensen of Viborg, and Sorensen's friend, Loretta Terino.

They died in a crash caused by a 16-year-old driver using a cell phone "who blew right through a stop sign," according to Nygaard.

"It jarred me into consciousness," he said.

The Jon Christensen Memorial Fund has been established to benefit Christensen's two children. Donations can be made at CorTrust branches at 100 E. Havens Ave. or 719 N. Main St.