Recovery continues for South Portland officer injured by distracted driver

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SOUTH PORTLAND — As a former collegiate football player, Rocco Navarro has taken his fair share of hits.

And as a police officer, he stands ready to attack dangerous situations head-on.

But nothing could have prepared him for the dangerous hit he sustained on Nov. 1, 2010 – a blow the 28-year-old is still struggling to overcome before he can return to his job.

Navarro had just pulled his cruiser up behind a Kia that was broken down in the left-hand lane on the Casco Bay Bridge, where the speed limit is 40 mph.

After speaking with the driver, Navarro volunteered to wait in his cruiser, with the emergency lights flashing, for a wrecker to arrive to tow away the vehicle.

Shortly after returning to his cruiser, Navarro’s car was rear-ended by a pick-up truck travelling at least 45 mph.

“I heard a big bang, my head snapped back and then everything went black,” Navarro said this week, noting the impact was so great it snapped the head rest off the seat.

After regaining consciousness in the mangled cruiser, Navarro said he had to kick the cruiser door open to get out.

“I knew I had to get out for fear of explosion,” he said.

Navarro said he had injuries to his head, neck and back, although he wouldn’t provide details. When woke up in the hospital wearing a neck brace, he said, he could only think of one thing.

“My first thought was when can I be back,” he said. “I love my job and I didn’t want it taken from me like that.”

Police Chief Edward Googins said he is grateful the injuries weren’t worse.

“I’m very grateful he wasn’t killed,” Googins said. “It’s very trying to see him. He wants to come back in the worst way.”

Navarro, who is single and lives in Portland, couldn’t move much for the first month. He urinated blood, had bouts of dizziness and difficulty with his short-term memory. He was nursed back to health by his father and step-mother. 

But now, it seems those memory and mobility problems are gradually going away, and Navarro, who has lost about 13 pounds from his immobility, is at least able to drive again.

“I still get nervous driving over the bridge,” he said.

The driver of the pick-up truck, 40-year-old South Portland resident David Zografos, reportedly admitted to using his cell phone at the time of the crash. He was issued a summons on a charge of failure to maintain a motor vehicle.

Navarro, who expects to make a full recovery, said he is looking forward to speaking publicly about the dangers of distracted driving when he is able to return to light desk duty, which he plans to do as soon as he is cleared by his doctor.

He said he hopes that by telling students his story he will be able to discourage people from distracted driving, especially the dangers of texting while driving.

“I hope some good comes from this,” he said. “My message is: all it takes is a few seconds, but the results can be disastrous.

“No text message is worth another person’s life,” he added. “I just wish people would take it more seriously.”

Although he still struggles to overcome his injuries, Navarro said he doesn’t have any animosity towards Zografos. But he knows that if his cruiser hadn’t been parked behind the Kia, that driver may have died.

“I’m at peace knowing that,” he said.

 Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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South Portland Police Officer Rocco Navarro, 28, is recovering from head, neck and back injuries received last November when his parked police cruiser was rear-ended by a driver who was talking on a cell phone.

A South Portland Police Department photo of the accident scene after Officer Rocco Navarro’s cruiser was rear-ended Nov. 1, 2010, on the Casco Bay Bridge.

Hands-free policy in effect for South Portland police

SOUTH PORTLAND — As of Jan. 1, city police officers can only talk on their cell phones while driving if they use a hands-free device.

Police Chief Edward Googins said the new policy was motivated by injuries to Officer Rocco Navarro, who received head, neck and back injuries when his cruiser was rear-ended by a driver who was talking on his cell phone.

“We’re trying to practice what we preach,” Googins said.”We’re really trying to improve safety.”

Googins said the department has installed “about a dozen” hands-free units in its cruisers.

The units allow officers to dial phone numbers with a voice command and answer their cell phones with a push of a button. Calls are then automatically patched through the cruiser’s stereo, whether not it is turned on, he said.

Googins said the department did not ban cell phone use while driving because they are becoming increasingly important.

“There are times the radios is not appropriate,” he said. “Or a call is in progress and we don’t want to tie up the radio.” 

Googins said the goal is to put the hands-free units, which cost about $200 each, in most of the Police Department’s marked vehicles.

Officers who drive cruisers without the technology can still use their cell phones while driving, he said, as long as they use some other type of hands-free technology. 

— Randy Billings

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