THORNDIKE, Maine — Like many teens, Hailey Davis of Liberty didn’t used to think too much about the common practice of texting while driving.
But that changed as soon as the 18-year-old Mount View High School senior’s physics class took part in a group project to really look at what happens when drivers use their phones when they’re behind the wheel of a fast-moving, powerful machine.
“A lot of students, myself included, are thinking that most of the time when we text and drive, nothing happens,” she said Thursday afternoon after taking part in a powerful presentation at the high school. “What I wanted people to get out of this presentation is that it doesn’t matter most times. It’s that one time that something happens that’s going to change everything for your whole life that really matters.”
The dangers of texting while driving hit very close to home for the students, according to Deputy Nick Oettinger of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department, who is the school’s resource officer. The youngsters stopped shuffling their feet and whispering to friends Thursday as he told the story of Patty Armstrong, who teaches in the school’s alternative education program. He showed photos of her daughter, Maddi, a pretty golden-haired girl who loved horses and wanted to be a novelist one day. She was 20 and studying in Austria when she and a friend both were killed by a 24-year-old texting driver.
“Every year the statistics get worse on involvement in fatal crashes [involving texting],” Oettinger said before the presentation, adding that he hoped hearing Maddi’s story would make the students think twice before texting and driving.
Since 2010, Maine has had a law against driving while distracted. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Communications Commission, in 2010 driver distraction was the cause of 18 percent of all fatal crashes. Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted, the FCC points out.
Oettinger enlisted the help of physics teacher Jessica Scott, who said that 23 students designed their own surveys and projects to help other students understand how texting while driving slows driver’s reaction times.
An anonymous poll of 70 percent of the student body showed that while nearly half believe it is extremely dangerous to text while driving, more than a quarter of the drivers said they feel sufficiently experienced to do it themselves. Of the drivers, 40 percent admitted they have texted while driving and 30 percent said that they’ve done that with a passenger in their vehicle.
“They are putting you in danger,” Hailey Davis told the assembled student body.
Others took to the stage to demonstrate the laws of physics. One teen ran at force against three football players, falling backward when he met their resistance. The giggles of the student body belied the seriousness of Newton’s third law, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. One of the physics students told the room to imagine a small Subaru with a distracted driver hitting a “big old Mack truck that slammed on its brakes.”
“Save everyone. Save yourselves. Please don’t text and drive,” he urged.
The physics students told their peers that if a driver takes his or her eyes off the road for just 4.6 seconds while driving at 55 miles per hour, they will travel the length of a football field without paying attention.
“It was interesting to see the students’ attitudes change,” Scott said.
At first, her students said that they were good at multitasking and felt comfortable texting behind the wheel. But after hearing Maddi Armstrong’s story and doing their own number crunching, they said they felt differently.
“At the end, they were up there with conviction. They got it,” she said.
Armstrong said that Thursday was the first time since her daughter’s death in 2009 that she was able to be present while hearing Maddi’s story told to students.
“Nick said it’s a story that brings it home to the kids,” she said. “I think the kids today — their phone is an extension of their persona. This generation is such an instant gratification generation. When their phone buzzes, they don’t even think about not picking it up. It has to be a change in the culture — but we got a lot of them here who pledged not to text and drive.”