As Cranston High School East Principal Sean Kelly introduced the assembly’s purpose – the 100th and final presentation of the “It Can Wait” campaign started by AT&T about a decade ago and championed by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin in 2012 – you could feel the energy of students comprising about 400 members of the senior class ranging from actually dozing off to just politely paying attention.
That’s not a slight against Kelly. He simply had the unenviable position of warming up a crowd of high school seniors at 9 a.m. just a couple weeks before the holiday break and prior to an assembly that, rather than try to entertain or amuse the kids, was intended to warn them and, perhaps to an extent, scare them a little as well about the dangers of distracted driving.
That atmosphere changed drastically, though, when Cranston Mayor Allan Fung took to the podium. Those who know Fung personally or have seen him at events around the state have likely often seen him with a wide smile, perhaps cracking a joke or two while spreading his message. That happy aura was nowhere to be seen this morning. This was no laughing matter to him. It wasn’t even business. It was personal – deeply personal.
Not a sound was heard from hundreds of teenagers. The auditorium fell silent save for Fung’s voice – low, almost trembling – as he spoke of what is possibly his darkest memory. The event happened nearly 30 years ago and, considering it was an accident devoid of distractions, impairments or other discernible causes, it could have happened to anybody. But it happened to Fung, and decades later he spoke about how he lives with the constant guilt knowing that he caused another person’s death, regardless of being subsequently cleared of any criminal charges as a result.
It was the kind of soul-bearing honesty that caused even the apathetic young students to take notice. Fung certainly didn’t need to share the story, but clearly the importance of the campaign registered with him enough to recognize the importance of doing so. It is these types of stories – told by people that we recognize and know – that resonate, more than any documentary video can do.
That’s not to say the documentary video shown to students was easy on the heart by any means. The video chronicled traumatic loss in three different fashions. In the first case a teenage girl, days away from her high school graduation, lost her life responding to a text from her sister. In the second, a teenage boy had to be hospitalized for mental reasons after causing the death of a cyclists while he was texting behind the wheel. The last case showed a passenger who was forever handicapped and disabled because of a driver’s decision to text and drive.
Their stories are chapters in the tragically voluminous book of similar experiences.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,450 people in the United States died in 2016 from events related to distracted driving. According to TeenSafe.com 58 percent of crashes involving teenagers featured some element of distracted driving. They report that nine people each day are killed from distracted driving incidents in America. They could have been people doing nothing wrong, taken from life suddenly because of the poor choices of somebody else.
The statistics are available for anybody to view themselves online. They all conclude one thing – driving distracted is a ridiculously dangerous, completely preventable thing to do. However, all the stats in the world won’t change the minds of a generation of kids who have been practically born with a phone in their hands, and have grown up as technology has evolved to become a part of everyday existence.
Only through stories like Fung’s, and through demonstrations like that of State Police Sergeant Gregory Cunningham – who engaged the entire audience of kids simply by sparing no ounce of enthusiasm in regaling stories from his 25 years in law enforcement – will the message be absorbed. The message cannot simply be numbers on a page, it must unfortunately be written in the painful accounts of people who have experienced the drastic consequences of such dangerous actions.
As humans, we have a capacity to isolate negative incidents outside of our control as being just that – isolated incidents. A texting and driving accident can never happen to me, right? Unfortunately, it is this fallacy that was undoubtedly felt by every victim and perpetrator of tragedy through distracted driving. You’re only untouchable by such consequences until the fateful day when they hit close to home.
We would like to commend the members of AT&T, the Rhode Island state police, local law enforcement departments, elected officials – especially Attorney General Kilmartin – for taking so seriously an initiative that deserves more attention. Laws can hold people accountable, but preventative measures such as these seminars – even if they save just one person a year – are incredibly worthwhile.
We hope that that the “It Can Wait” campaign will persist through Kilmartin’s departure as AG, and that its message will resonate for as long as distracted driving causes deaths on our roadways.