Teens’ texting, other distractions can make for dangerous driving
BY CHRISTIN NANCE LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org March 14, 2013 10:54PM
Lake Central freshman Jimmy Hickey, 15, looks back as he parallel parks during his last driving test with Rite-Way Driving School owner Robert Reagan (not visible) in St. John, Ind. Wednesday March 13, 2013. Studies show teen distracting driving accidents are increasing. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 16, 2013 3:07PM
Indiana led the nation in a gruesome statistic in 2012 — it registered 16 deaths among 16- and 17-year-old drivers for the first half of the year, according to preliminary data from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The number tied the state with Tennessee and it represented an increase of 13 from the same period in 2011.
It was an unexpected increase after years of declines, and it coincided with a renewed focus on the dangers of texting while driving.
Hobart High School will participate this April in the Every 15 Minutes program, which stages a grisly fatal car accident to warn about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The program also incorporates distracted driving.
Hobart Police Lt. Jack Grennes said the school borrowed a simulator for a week last year through the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute that really hit home about how easy it is to make a mistake.
“It had a steering wheel, brakes and a cell phone and simulated them driving through a neighborhood,” Grennes said. “They didn’t make it two blocks before they hit a mailbox, a tree or a pedestrian, so it really made them aware of how dangerous it was. It really got their attention and it’s a great learning tool.”
About 250 students participated in the simulator program.
Hobart senior Keagan Svetic, 18, said it really illustrates the dangers of texting while driving.
“It was very difficult,” Svetic said. “I hit a cow, then a car and I died.”
Svetic said he wants to get his license, but his mother is worried about the prospect of her son getting involved in a serious accident.
“I think she wants to wrap me up in bubble wrap (to protect me),” he laughed.
Senior Kaitlin Radats said discussions about distracted driving emphasize how the brain can’t do two things at once.
“I have a license but I do not drive,” Radats said. “I carpool and seeing a driver text and drive freaks me out. When I drive with my mom, I’m so focused that I can’t even think about grabbing my phone.”
Research has shown that sending or receiving a text distracts a driver’s eyes from the road for average of 4.6 seconds. If a car is traveling 55 mph, that’s the equivalent of driving blind for the length of a football field.
Nearly 16 percent of the 100,000 distracted driving crashes involve drivers under 20, according to federal data. In Indiana, 16- and 17-year-olds have the highest rate of drivers involved in all collisions.
Grennes said distracted driving is a topic in class as well.
“I teach a law enforcement/homeland security class and we talk about it in class a lot,” he said. On Tuesday, the class looked at real-life examples of teens who died as a result of texting by them or the other driver as part of the “Off the Road Off the Phone” campaign by the National Safety Council.
The state banned texting while driving effective July 1, 2011, but enforcement has proven difficult since dialing a cell phone number, surfing the Web or using GPS is still legal. The Indiana State Police issued 171 tickets and 150 warnings in the law’s first year.
Any use of cell phones or pagers is illegal for drivers under 18 years of age, but Grennes said every kid has a cell phone these days.
Grennes said picking up a distracted driver is difficult unless they make an overt movement.
“It’s kind of hard to pick up, but you can tell if they’re starting to swerve,” Grennes said. “You can also tell by the position of the head, looking down. They may not be messing around with a cell phone, but something is diverting their attention.”
Indiana Criminal Justice Institute communications director Mica McQueen said the state has several initiatives and programs to help teen drivers avoid dangerous driving situations.
The state’s graduated driver licensing system, which has been in effect since July 2009, increased the minimum age for a learner’s permit or probationary license, which contributed to fatal crash rates for 16- and 17-year-olds reaching the lowest rate of any age group in 2011.
The state holds Rule the Road events across the state to help young drivers learn safe driving techniques as well as educating students and parents on license laws, basic car maintenance and seat belt safety.