Look Closely at the Faces of Distraction

woman_in_car_71965996I recently had to replace the entire right side of my car after a 17 year-old on his cell phone ignored his stop sign and t-boned me across traffic. Thankfully, I was driving well under the speed limit, because otherwise I would have hit the woman who had to swerve out of the way as my car careened into her lane.

The under-20 age group has the highest proportion of distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If you drive around our campus every day as I do, you’ll see abundant evidence of this statistic. I’d like to ask the young man who hit my car what he was talking about on the phone that was more important than my life and my safety, but because I don’t have access to him, I turned instead to all the other young drivers in my life: my students.

Almost all of the students currently enrolled in my classes admit they text while driving, and all of them know it’s dangerous. “Then what would it take for you to stop?” I asked.

“I’m not really gonna stop; just being honest,” said Peter. “Maybe a serious accident would make me stop,” said Melanie, with no apparent awareness that a serious accident could also end her life—or someone else’s. “I only do it at red lights, so it’s no big deal” said Dan, who also confessed that he is addicted to texting and sends out at least 13,000 messages every month.

I asked if any of the current media campaigns have an effect: “Talk. Text. Crash…It’s Not Worth It…One Text or Call Could Wreck it All.” They laughed and shrugged their shoulders.

Then Stephanie said, “well, I gave up sugar for Lent, so I guess I could give up texting and driving too.” I wanted to hug her.

“Decide to Drive” is probably the least effective slogan I found online, but the most important, and the one this disciplined student understood. It comes from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, whose website reminds us: “We are the medical doctors who put bones and limbs back together after traumatic injuries, including road crashes. This site is dedicated to helping drivers stay whole and healthy by ‘deciding to drive’ each time they get behind the wheel.”

I tried to tell everyone how many deaths and injuries could be prevented each year if we would just turn off our phones in the car, but their eyes glazed over. Out of other ideas, I invited a dozen students to crowd around my computer during office hours and watch the “Faces” videos I’d been viewing on the Distraction.gov website.

We heard story after story: Alex Brown, 17, crushed by her own truck after being thrown through her windshield. She was texting. Ashley Johnson, 16, who died after crashing head-on into a pick-up truck. Ashley’s father had warned her many times about cell phone use in the car, but she wasn’t thinking about that when she swerved across the center lane while retrieving a text message.

I urge all drivers to watch these videos. Nobody thinks about statistics or citations when they are driving, but from now on, I will have an image of Erik Okerblom in my mind, and that keeps me from ever picking up my phone in the car. He was 19 years old and riding his bicycle when he was killed by a distracted truck driver. His parents’ heartbreak is itself a plea for public safety, and his father, Bob Okerblom, reminds us that it’s entirely up to us “to create a culture where driving and using a hand-held device is not acceptable.”

My students, my friends and family—they are smart, kind, conscientious people who say they would never, ever drink and drive. To them, that’s a serious offense, and texting while driving is not. What’s the difference? Not a thing at the moment their automobile crashes into yours.

ONE TEXT OR CALL COULD WRECK IT ALL. The US Government’s official site: http://www.distraction.gov/


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