GAINESVILLE, Ga. – Imagine this: A teen and a friend are on the way home. The teen driver tries to send a text message: “Mom, be home in 20. What’s for dinner? Bringing a friend.” But neither the message, nor the teens, make it to their destination.
According to distraction.gov, 11 percent of all drivers younger than 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the wreck.
That age group, the website claims, has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.
“Everybody really is included in this problem – this distracted driving,” said Dylan Richardson, a representative from PEER Awareness, an organization focused on educating youth about healthy decisions. “It’s an epidemic, almost. It’s become the leading cause of death among teenagers and it’s a huge problem.”
PEER has teamed with AT&T and is campaigning across the country through its “Txtng & Driving … It Can Wait” program. The program, which made a stop recently at Flowery Branch High School, places students in a driving simulator where they’re asked to text and drive, hopefully seeing firsthand the dangers of distracted driving.
“What we hope they gain from this is that, you know, they can go and crash in the simulation and there will be no real consequences for them,” said Richardson. “But hopefully after they do the simulator and they can see what can potentially happen if they were to go out and do that in real life, that maybe they’ll think twice about it when they do get in a car.”
A recent AT&T survey found that 97 percent of teens say they know texting and driving is dangerous, but 43 percent admit to doing it.
About three-quarters of the teens surveyed said texting and driving is “common” among their peers and that nearly 90 percent of teens expect a reply within five minutes of sending a text.
“It’s something that we need to change the world about,” said Anna Leigh Stewart, a Flowery Branch student and Miss Georgia Peach. “It’s not something that should be taken lightly.”
It’s something Stewart is passionate about, and it’s why she started competing in pageants, she said. She wanted a platform to get her message out.
Four years ago, Stewart was riding in a car with her sister, Cara, when a teenager who was texting behind the wheel “swerved into our lane to keep from rear-ending a school bus.”
Her sister was in and out of surgery for more than a year and confined to a wheelchair. Stewart’s back had to be fused and she had to abandon dance.
Ever since, she’s been a local voice for ending distracted driving.
“I couldn’t figure out a way to really tell teens about it and that’s why I started entering pageants and that’s been my focus in my speeches,” she said.
If Stewart is riding in a car, expect her to act as the texting police.
“I take phones away from my friends when they’re driving and even the girls in the back seat and I put them in my purse,” she said.
Texting, according to distracation.gov, takes drivers’ eyes off the road for almost five seconds. At 55 miles per hour, it’s like driving an entire football field blindfolded, the site states.
The simulator proves just that. Flowery Branch students lined up to take a crack at texting while driving. Many of them wound up off the road or in head-on collisions with oncoming traffic.
“You couldn’t focus on the road,” freshman Abbey Cantrell said. “You had to multitask and I’m not good at multitasking.”
Christian Cummings, a freshman at Flowery Branch, wound up in a head-on wreck at more than 45 miles per hour during the simulation.
“I learned not to text and drive,” he said of the experience. “It’s the worst. You could die easily.
“It shows that if you text and drive, anything can happen in a split second.”
Event coordinators said the students generally walk away with a greater appreciation of how dangerous distracted driving is.
“It’s a real eye-opener for these kids who are just getting started driving,” said Abie Rezene, PEER representative. “You get thousands and thousands of text messages in a lifetime, but you only get one life.”