Texting and driving is a dangerous habit that has the potential to be fatal.
It’s a message about 500 Toll Gate juniors and seniors heard Thursday morning, one that they plan to extend to younger students, as well as their parents and other adults in their lives.
According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, people who text while driving are “23 times more likely to be involved in some type of safety critical event.” The National Traffic Safety Administration also recently conducted a study, which revealed that more than 3,300 people were killed in 2011, and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.
“We believe that young people need to know the hazards of texting while driving,” Principal Stephen Chrabaszcz said moments before students viewed “The Last Text,” an AT&T documentary that’s part of “Txting & Driving… It Can Wait,” a national public awareness campaign. “It’s a serious situation.”
Chrabaszcz used a desktop driving simulator, which depicted a fictional city on a projector screen, to show students how texting impairs a driver’s ability to maintain control of a motor vehicle. He received and responded to text messages on a simulated cell phone, consistently swerving before crashing and getting pulled over by a police officer.
“When you are texting while driving, your eyes are off the road,” Chrabaszcz said. “Your ability to see other vehicles, pedestrians and other distractions is compromised. You’re not just risking your own safety, but the safety of those around you.”
The presentation included testimony from AT&T, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), the Warwick Police Department (WPD), the Rhode Island State Police (RISP), and Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who is doing a statewide high school tour to promote the campaign.
Kilmartin sponsored legislation in 2009 that banned texting while driving, and this year’s legislation to increase penalties for drivers that violate the law. Col. Stephen McCartney of the WPD said his department is considering using undercover officers to help enforce the law.
“We’re concerned about people,” he said in a separate interview. “We don’t want them to harm themselves or injury somebody else, and by texting while driving they are putting themselves at risk.”
The WPD has issued 21 citations in relation to texting while driving. The number of tickets issued by local and state police went from 176 in 2010, to 262 in 2012.
But RISP Lt. Eric LaRiviere said the amount of tickets is not critical information. What’s important, he said, are the people whose lives have been changed, or lost.
“Every one of those people you saw on the screen wishes they could take that five seconds back,” he said during the assembly. “Don’t forget what you just saw.”
McCartney, LaRiviere, along with Kilmartin, a former police officer, told students that visiting parents to inform them that their child has died in an accident is not easy. They said it’s the worst part of the job.
“Think about your mom or dad or loved one in that position and getting the knock on the door,” said LaRiviere.
The documentary highlighted heart-wrenching stories, including one about a police officer who often reports to accidents due to texting at the wheel, another that featured a young woman whose text resulted in her sister’s death, while a third focused on a young man who hit a cyclist and killed him because he looked down to read a text.
Other vignettes showcased a man who can no longer walk because he was involved in a nearly fatal crash, as well as a mother who lost her daughter the day before she was supposed to graduate high school.
While some of the students saw the video last year, it impacted them nevertheless.
“This is the second year I’ve seen it, but it’s still sad,” said senior Brianna Sousa, 17. “If I’m in a car with someone and I see them take their phone out, I’m going to tell them to put it away to be safe.”
Taylor Venter, 17, another senior, agreed. She often interjects if friends drive while texting.
“If I’m in a car with a friend and they are trying to text, I’ll say, ‘Do you want me to type it for you?’” Venter said. “It won’t kill you if you wait 10 minutes, but it will kill you if you text now.”
Class officers were invited to sign the pledge during the assembly, with other students signing during lunch. Junior class President Abby Gregory, 16, along with Vice President Erika Pena, 16, Treasurer Breana Coleman, 16, and Secretary Mara Martinez, 16, are on the cusp of earning their driving licenses. Each of them related to the people in the documentary.
“I couldn’t help thinking if that happened to me,” said Coleman. “I wouldn’t want my family to have to go through that.”
Martinez feels the same. She plans to raise awareness among her friends and family.
“I’m going to tell them not to text while driving,” she said.
This is the second year Kilmartin has participated in the campaign, which AT&T launched in 2010. Toll Gate marks the 21st school he has visited, sending the message to at least 8,000 students. He will soon present the campaign at Vets.
AT&T New England President Patricia Jacobs praised Kilmartin for being committed to the cause. She also urged students to talk to their parents, as well as other adults in their lives, and ask them to stop texting while driving.
“We know it’s not just kids that are sending text messages while driving – adults do it, too,” she said.
RIDOT Highway Safety Supervisor Francisco Lovera said that Rhode Islanders lose about a person a week on average. While not all these deaths are related to texting and driving, each of them has to do with people making poor choices.
“At the end of the day it’s up to each of us to make the right decision,” said Lovera. “There is not a message that is important enough to risk your life for.”
Kilmartin agreed. Prior to the presentation, he told a reporter that he leads by example by abiding by the law – he never texts while driving.
“It’s just too dangerous an activity,” he said.
Learn more about AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign at ATT/ItCanWait.com.