Brewer teens learn dangers of texting while driving

Posted Dec. 07, 2011, at 3:44 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — Texting while driving can kill.

That was the message sent to Brewer High School students on Wednesday as part of AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign, designed to educate young drivers about the dangers of texting while driving. Cellphone text messaging while driving in Maine became illegal at the end of September.

“It’s very sad to see people can die from this,” a 16-year-old sophomore named Chrissy said after watching a 10-minute video titled “The last text,” which featured four true stories about distracted driving caused by texting.

Two of the stories are about people who died while texting, one was about a man who hit and killed a man on a bike while sending a text and the last one featured a man who has permanent physical damage from a car crash in which he was a passenger.

“It’s worse than drunk driving because it’s all the time,” Cynthia McLaughlin, health and outdoor education teacher at Brewer High, said after one of the morning sessions.

Most of the students in the session had cellphones and a majority said they sent or received in excess of 50 text messages daily.

“These guys are inexperienced drivers and they’re texting and driving,” McLaughlin said.

It’s a deadly combination, said presenter Crystal Canney of Canney Communications.

“You’re putting yourself, you’re putting your passengers in danger,” she told the students. “It’s serious stuff.”

Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for Mainers ages 1 to 24, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Younger Maine drivers are more likely to be involved in crashes directly related to risk-taking behavior, including texting while behind the wheel.

People between the ages of 16 and 24 account for only 13 percent of Maine drivers, yet they are involved in 36 percent of all auto accidents, according to the Maine Transportation Safety Coalition. They also are more likely to be involved in severe crashes that involve personal injury or death.

“This year alone in the U.S., there have been more than 425,000 crashes involving drivers using mobile phones and texting,” Canney said, citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As cellphone use increases, so does the number of distracted driver deaths, she said.

“It was 8 percent in 2004 and in 2008 it was 11 percent,” Canney said.

In 2009, 5,474 people died in the U.S. as a result of distracted driving, which accounts for about 16 percent of all traffic fatalities, she said.

Young people aren’t the only ones using cellphones behind the wheel, and Canney asked the teenagers to be messengers.

“Remind your parents — be an example and don’t text and drive,” she said. “And don’t text your friends while they’re driving. Be good to them.”

During the session, a 15-year-old freshman named Justin asked, “If my mom is texting and driving, do I have the right to get out of the car at a stop sign?”

Another 14-year-old freshman named Brandon said, “My mom has never once gone driving without texting.”

Canney answered, “You should have these conversations before you get in the car.”

Those texting and driving can be stopped by police and the minimum fine is $100 in Maine, which this year joined 33 other states in banning the practice.

Two computer simulators — equipped with a computer screen and a steering wheel and designed to educate teens about the dangers of texting and driving — should soon arrive in the state, Maine Bureau of Highway Safety announced in September.

Maine received one of only five Ford Motor Foundation grants awarded nationwide for the simulators.

At the end of Wednesday’s session at Brewer High School, many of the students got up and signed a pledge not to text and drive.

A similar session was held in the spring at Westbrook High School. Canney said educational materials, including the “The Last Text” video, will be sent to each high school in Maine and all driver education schools.

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