A five-mile stretch of the 405 freeway now honors a former Orange County police chief, but those who knew Mitch Waller hope it will serve as more than a memorial.
The Chief of Police Mitch Waller Memorial Highway, a stretch of freeway in Irvine near Culver Drive going southbound and Irvine Center Drive coming north, might spark different feelings for those who pass the sign that was dedicated March 24.
Those who knew Waller as police chief and city manager will remember a consummate leader who was fair and dedicated.
Waller, who held his law degree and FBI certificate, served with the Westminster PD for 29 years before leaving the department. He then led Westminster as city manager for a year and a half before retiring.
During his tenure as chief, he was the first rookie SWAT team officer, a motor officer and the project manager for the department’s new state-of-the-art facility, among other assignments.
When family and friends pass the stretch of the 405 bearing Waller’s name, they’ll remember a loving father and husband — an earnest wannabe cowboy with a wry sense of humor, an aptitude for DIY projects and a love for chocolate.
Waller, 53, was the guy who never hesitated to chase his daughter’s club softball team from state to state, equipped with gear should any of the girls get injured or need a break from the sun during a double-header.
He was the dad who rode his bicycle alongside his son’s cross country team to ensure those falling behind had someone encouraging them to keep running.
“He was a great father,” his wife, Sally Waller, said.
Neighbors will remember the man who knew how to fix anything and would volunteer to share his handyman expertise with those on his street in Mission Viejo.
Waller would greet neighbors as they drove off in the mornings, stopping them to have a quick conversation at their car before slapping his hand on the hood and sending each person off with, “You’re good to go.”
But many people who pass that sign on the 405 freeway won’t know who Waller was.
His family, friends and colleagues hope passersby care enough to find out.
“Whether people bother to look him up, or ask around, the signs will resonate somehow,” said Waller’s sister, Victoria Brady. “Whether his name lingers in the back of some commuter’s mind or is just another morning blur, one this is for certain: Mitch Waller will never be forgotten.”
Family and friends want the sign to be a reminder of the dangers of distracted driving because that is how Waller was killed just after 8:30 a.m. on June 28, 2013.
An avid cyclist, Waller was traveling along one of his favorite routes — the 133 freeway — on that Friday morning with friend and Westminster employee Kevin Beach.
Sally Waller remembers her husband was out late the night before ensuring all of the vans were packed and ready to go for his daughter’s upcoming softball trip.
She remembers she didn’t say goodbye that morning because Waller left before she woke.
Eight feet of bike lane and expert cycling skills were not enough to save Waller from a 25-year-old woman who was driving distracted.
She drifted into the bike lane striking Waller, then Beach.
Beach survived, but was seriously injured.
Sally Waller was at Target gathering items for her son’s 17th birthday party when she learned her husband had been hit by a car.
She drove home and waited for Police Chief Kevin Baker to confirm what she already knew: her husband had been killed.
Two days later, Sally Waller committed to a personal mission: spread the word about the dangers of distracted driving.
“That’s where my heart and desire is now,” she said. “If I can save just one life, or keep someone from going through what we went through, it is worth it.”
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month and Sally Waller said she believes her husband’s memorial sign is a great way to remind the thousands of motorists who will pass it every day to put down their phones and concentrate on the road.
The woman who hit Waller was sentenced to a one-year license suspension and 500 hours of community service.
“She showed no remorse,” Sally Waller said. “I want her to be required to go to high schools and speak about distracted driving, but she and her lawyers are fighting that.”
Sally Waller said she will keep charging ahead until distracted driving carries the same penalties as driving under the influence.
“Drunken driving is a choice you make and it is the same for distracted driving,” she said. “It is no longer an accident. You choose to get on your phone.
“And the fees for using a cell phone while driving are not that impactful to stop people from doing it. We need the fees to be a lot higher.”
She added part of her advocacy efforts also includes challenging automobile companies to ensure technology to deter texting and driving is outfitted in every car.
“Every car should have technology so blue tooth-enabled phones do not beep when a text comes through, but automatically send back a response stating, ‘I am driving and will get back to you when I reach my destination’,” she said. “How have they not figured that out yet? We need to keep putting pressure on the automobile industry.”
In 2014, nearly 3,200 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in the United States, and another 143,000 were injured, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Cell phone use is the No. 1 culprit of distracted driving, however a myriad of other activities falls under the category.
Eating while driving, applying makeup, using navigation devices or reading a map are all considered distracted driving, according to DOT.
Because texting requires a driver to engage visually, cognitively and manually it is, by far, the most dangerous distractor, the DOT reported.
Westminster police, along with all law enforcement agencies in Orange County, will be on high-alert this month and putting a concerted effort to citing distracted drivers to remind all drivers that texts, calls, emails and social media can wait.
“Distracted driving took someone from our family too soon,” Sally Waller said. “Mitch always exemplified leading by example, and not by empty words. Let’s follow in his lead. Let’s make the road safer for everyone. It starts with all of us.”