The growing trend of texting while driving has become a national epidemic, causing roughly 1.6 million accidents per year, according to the National Safety Council. In fact, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) statistics reveal that a person is 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash when texting while behind the wheel.
Despite the dangers involved, including fines, jail time, injury or even death, a large number of adults and the majority of teenagers still engage in the unsafe behavior.
"Texting while driving at any time or any age is illegal," said Doug Goodmund, Marshall Community Services Assistant Director. "Yet all you have to do is drive down the road and you'll see somebody texting. It's becoming a major issue nation-wide in terms of accidents."
Photo by Per Peterson
This image portrays an all-too-often scene, especially among younger drivers — texting while behind the wheel — and is a major source of concern for parents and law enforcement as distracted driving has become more prevalent in today’s world.
So how does a nation implement change? Some suggest tougher laws, while others advocate for more awareness or education. The bottom line is that it may take a combination of factors to finally get the message across, beginning with new teenager drivers, which unfortunately, according to statistics, are still considered the most dangerous and distractible drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving is the No. 1 killer of teens in the U.S.
Minnesota, in an attempt to deter texting while driving, became the third state in the country to approve a ban four years ago. A violation of the law, which went into effect Aug. 1, 2008, is considered a petty misdemeanor.
"There's always law changes, so that's one of the things we open class with," said Brian Michelson, who teaches high school drivers education classes at Tracy Area, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, Hendricks and Ivanhoe. "At least three hours (of the 30-hour classroom requirement) are devoted to talking about different types of distractions and how they can affect drivers, everything from sleep deprivation, to drunk driving, to texting and driving."
Distracted driving can also involve eating, drinking, talking to passengers, reading, operating a navigational system, adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player, grooming or watching a video. But because text messaging requires all three types of main distractions - manual (taking your hands off the wheel), visual (taking your eyes off the road) and cognitive (taking you mind off of driving) - it is by far, the most dangerous.
One statistic Michelson talks about in the classroom is that the average text message takes 4.5 seconds to compose.
"The problem with that, is that if it takes that long, your car, at 55 miles per hour, has traveled the length of a football field," Michelson said. "That's a long time to not be watching the road."
A bulletin board at Tracy Area High School also provides a visual awareness of how dangerous the activity can be. In addition to You Tube videos and other resources, both drivers education classes at Tracy Area and at Marshall High School utilize dramatic videos about texting while driving.
"Distractions can cause a lot of problems," Michelson said. "Texting while driving is even overtaking the number of injuries that are caused by drunken driving, which is scary."
Goodmund is confident the MCS-Marshall Public School driver education staff, which includes program coordinator Pat Irsfeld, along with Bob Cole, Amy Labat, Mark Greenwood, LeAnne Carmany, Cheryl Henn and Jennifer Keely, can make a difference.
"We all know 16-year-olds. They love to text," Goodmund said. "We all know they love to be on the cell phone, so we go over a lot of training and keep them up to date on what the laws are in Minnesota. We're fortunate, in my opinion, to have one of the best staff in the state of Minnesota."
While multi-tasking is considered normal in today's society, doing so in a motor vehicle can have grave consequences. This summer, 16-year-old Rachel Gannon pled guilty to second-degree involuntary manslaughter, third-degree assault and violating the 2009 Missouri law that prohibits motorists 21 or younger from text-messaging, while 18-year-old Aaron Deveau was sentenced to one year in prison for vehicular homicide in Massachusetts.
"Nowadays, it's becoming more prevalent for law enforcement, upon arriving at an accident scene, to check the cell phones," Goodmund said. "They're finding more and more drivers are texting and it's all recorded."
Goodmund questioned whether some insurance companies would deny claims since the driver is actually breaking the law by texting and driving.
"Repercussions can extend a long ways if you ever do have an accident," he said.
The biggest obstacle in the campaign against texting while driving is that, despite knowing the dangers, a large number of drivers continue to engage in the banned activity. According to the AAA Foundation's 2011 Traffic Safety Culture Index, 94 percent of drivers agree that texting or e-mailing while driving is unacceptable, yet more than one-third of those drivers admit to one or both behaviors in the previous month.
And, according to the first federal statistics released, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of more than 15,000 high school students from across the country, 58 percent of seniors and 43 percent of juniors admit they text or e-mail while driving.
As a driver education instructor, Michelson said he does his best to instill positive habits in the teenage students.
"It's the first rule when the kids get in the car with me to take their driving lessons. The cell phones are turned off," he said. "The phones are not just turned to quiet or silent, but turned off because testing, receiving messages and using the Internet are illegal for anybody of any age."
Michelson pointed out that the student could lose his or her license up to age 18 if they're caught.
"Kids are not allowed to use their phones at all while driving," Michelson said. "Only in a 911 emergency can they use their phone under the age of 18."
Experts also report that parents may be one of the biggest difference-makers on whether or not their son or daughter engages in dangerous behaviors while behind the wheel. VTTI statistics, that one-fifth of experienced adult drivers in the U.S. send text messages while driving, are proof that adults do not always practice what they preach.
For that reason, the Marshall drivers education program began piloting a new parent-teen session this summer that highlights the role of parents.
"We tell parents, you're the role model, your kids are going to drive like you do," Goodmund said. "If you drive while on your phone all the time, then that's what your kids are going to do."
The pilot program also encourages parents to consider harsh consequences if their son or daughter behaves irresponsibly behind the wheel.
"Driving is a privilege and not a right," Goodmund said. "We tell kids that they have to earn that privilege by doing the right things, whether it's at home with mom and dad, obeying the family rules, or the road rules, or the classroom rules. You can't just go out and do what you want."
A number of organizations, like Family, Career and Community Leaders of America have tried to encourage change through the development of positive peer pressure. FCCLA partnered with AT&T when it launched an "It Can Wait" campaign to discourage texting while driving. Teenage drivers are asked to sign a pledge to never text and drive or be a distraction while a passenger in someone else's vehicle.
"It's tough to get kids to differentiate the fact that this is not just about passing a test," Michelson said. "They're going to, hopefully, keep these skills and use them throughout their lives."
By working together and demanding the most distraction-free environment possible inside motor vehicles, change could happen for the better because like it or not, cell phones are here to stay.