Edmond Memorial High School’s Family Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) is leading an effort to get stricter laws on the books. In Tulsa, a youth-run group called Generation tXt has also been a large part of a grassroots push for an Oklahoma law. Both organizations work on outreach and education, and FCCLA’s program is now at all three high schools in Edmond.
“This is something young people and I, personally, are really passionate about,” said Cherrish Abinah, a 17-year-old student at Edmond Memorial and co-president of its FCCLA chapter. “This hit home the day I sat in church and heard a prayer request for a girl who had hit a tractor-trailer head on while she was texting and driving. This happened the day she got her license.”
FCCLA asks students and others to sign pledge cards stating they won’t text and drive. It has also worked with other groups to launch Drive Aware Oklahoma, a coalition of volunteer organizations concerned about traffic safety. It declared “Drive Aware Oklahoma Week” in late October to remind motorists to stay safe during the Halloween weekend.
“The goal of Drive Aware Oklahoma is to continue to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving and the use of electronic devices while driving,” said Dave Koeneke, executive director of the Oklahoma Safety Council, one of the groups that has led the push for state legislation.
Although bills to ban texting while driving failed in last year’s legislative session, advocates hope this upcoming session, which starts Feb. 4, will be different.
Education is not enough to keep people from texting and driving, Abinah said, because it does not have immediate consequences.
“We’re joining forces and we will be at the Capitol to take the signatures directly to those lawmakers who opposed the bills last year,” she said.
“I want those legislators to look us in the eye and tell us why they voted against the bill. I’ll ask them, ‘Don’t you know that texting while driving is the No. 1 killer of teens?’ We want them to see this is not just numbers; it’s real people.”
The statistics regarding texting and distracted driving are alarming. A recent study by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University found that texting drivers are 23 times more likely to crash than nontexting drivers. Research by AAA, the U.S.
Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Association indicates that in 2009, 5,400 people were killed and 416,600 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted driving. One person in seven admits to reading or sending text messages while driving.
“This issue resonates with young people. Many have stories to share about friends who have been hurt or killed in car accidents related to cell phone use,” Koeneke said.
Brittanie Montgomery was driving to dance practice on Dec. 21, 2006. A student at the University of Central Oklahoma and the youngest member of the dance troupe for the relocated New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, she was balancing school, work, dance and life.
Montgomery chatted with a friend on her cellphone while she drove. Distracted by the conversation, witnesses later said, she had drifted slightly over her lane. She overcorrected, and then overcorrected again and lost control of her car. The vehicle slammed into an oncoming van carrying a family of four.
“Her friend later told me that he thought Brittanie’s phone had dropped the call, so he called her back several times,” said Gina Harris, Brittanie’s mother. “She never answered. Her phone had been broken in the crash.”
The family in the van survived with minor injuries, but Montgomery was killed. She was 19.
“Six years later, this is still very difficult to talk about,” Harris said. “But if I can keep this from happening to even one person, it’s worth it.
It’s a hard habit to break. We don’t think talking or texting can affect our driving, but it does.”
A study by the University of Utah found that a vehicle going 55 miles per hour can travel the length of a football field in 4.5 seconds — the amount of time it takes to read a text message.
“Next time you are riding in a car, not driving, close your eyes for 4.5 seconds,” Harris said. “Then open them, see how far you’ve traveled and imagine driving that long without looking at the road. People do that every day.”
Senate Bill 182, which would have barred drivers age 18 and younger with restricted licenses from using handheld devices, was defeated in a 22-20 vote in March of last year. Another measure, House Bill 2898, would have prohibited Oklahoma state employees from texting while driving on state business.
The bills failed, but their proponents appear undaunted. Chuck Mai, vice president of AAA Oklahoma, said a handful of state lawmakers — including Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, and Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah — have indicated they will push for a ban this session.
“Obviously, voluntary compliance is not working,” said Mai. “It’s much like the seat belt issue. For a long time, we were opposed to a seat belt law and then it became apparent that people were not simply following common sense and buckling up voluntarily. And then we came around to realize that perhaps enforcement was the answer. Now that we have [a law], lives are being saved.”
Text messaging while driving is banned for all drivers in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Drivers with probationary licenses are banned from texting in seven states, including Oklahoma. School bus drivers are banned from text messaging in three states: Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.
In terms of danger, Mai said, texting while driving is a “triple whammy” of peril.
“You’re taking your eyes off the road, you’re taking your hands off the wheel and you’re taking your mind off what it should be concerned with, and that’s the unfolding traffic scenario in front of you,” he said. “I can’t think of anything more dangerous that people do on a daily basis than texting while driving, or checking their email or sending email.”