Trying to get teens to stop texting while driving
Sometimes when 21-year-old Ian Tate is going for a drive and his phone lights up with a new text message, he’ll use one hand to reach for his phone, leave his other hand on the wheel as he reads the message, then text a response. Even though the Springfield native doesn’t really like to text, that hasn’t stopped him from taking his eyes off the road.
Although texting while driving was outlawed in the state of Illinois last year, there are drivers like Tate who continue to steer through the streets with a phone in hand, eyes distracted and a thumb on the keyboard. Unlike these drivers, some central Illinois citizens aren’t taking the issue lightly. They are determined to teach young drivers that texting and driving is not leisurely but lethal.
Before shifting into drive, Tate says he considers the risks and consequences of texting. If it’s a short message that doesn’t take his attention for long, he says he doesn’t see it as a high-risk activity.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m pro-texting-and-driving, but I’m certainly guilty of it from time to time,” Tate says.
Tate has also been in the car with drivers who were texting, which made him “anxious,” but he didn’t get out of the car because they were people he trusted, he says.
“I certainly believe that they are capable of texting and driving without endangering my life,” he says.
It’s this texting-apathetic attitude in drivers that Bob Nika, driver education and health teacher at Springfield Southeast High School, says has made him “very concerned.”
“I’ve taught for 30 years now and I know these kids aren’t going to put their cell phones down,” Nika says. “They’ve already told me that.”
The young aren’t the only drivers with a phone in hand though. Nika conducted a survey last year, asking 400 Southeast students not about their own texting habits, but instead he inquired about their parents. He says 40 percent of surveyed students indicated that at least once per week their parents had texted while driving with them in the car.
“We’ve got an issue here in Illinois and I think we need to address it,” Nika says.
Dominique Edwards, student member of the Springfield District 186 school board, says texting has become commonplace in society, so younger generations of drivers must learn to become good decision-makers. The Lanphier High School senior says she wants to use her time on the school board to focus primarily on campaigning against texting while driving.
“Texting has become a way of life,” Edwards says, as she looks down at her phone that’s flashing with a new message. “It’s a part of us, everywhere. Texting is us.”
It can wait
Edwards serves on a committee with other students from across the United States, as a part of the “It Can Wait” campaign sponsored by AT&T. The campaign asks drivers to simply wait to read or respond to a text until they’re no longer driving. As a part of this committee, she and other students brainstorm ideas, such as making a ring that drivers could wear to remind them not to text if they reach for their phone.
AT&T also has a documentary on its website, www.att.com, called “The Last Text.” It features stories of young drivers who died in car accidents because they were responding to text messages while driving. The last text one driver featured in the documentary ever received before she was killed in a car crash was from her sister and was a simple one-word text message that read “yeah.”
Edwards says waiting to read a text message upon reaching a destination will save a person from a stressful, or even fatal situation that never had to occur in the first place. She says she plans to work with District 186 and community members during her term to confront the issue of texting while driving.
Tina Knoles, mother of 15-year-old Nicole Knoles who was seriously injured in a car accident in November 2010, has been working with Springfield District 186 to raise awareness among students, parents and teachers on the deadly risks of texting while driving.
“It’s a silent killer,” Knoles says. “They don’t know how dangerous a situation it is and what they’re putting themselves into.”
Knoles worked with the school board to introduce a driving simulator during Freshman Forward, an orientation for new high school students that started this year at all three high schools in District 186. The simulator, provided by American Automobile Association (AAA), includes computer monitors that display various driving scenarios to users.
Students who volunteered were asked to sit in a chair and place their feet on the life-like floor pedals, gripping the steering wheel in front of them to begin navigating through the course.
A member of SIU School of Medicine staff sat next to each student using the simulator. The staff member incorporated distracting elements, such as having other students sit next to and talk to the student using the simulator. When a student was stopped by a train or a red light, the staff member would ask the student to take out their cell phone and text someone to say they were running late. Each simulation ended shortly afterward because the student driver would hit another car, veer off the road or drive at speeds far exceeding the limit.
The simulator method gives students, even those too young to legally drive, instruction on the negative impacts of texting and other forms of distracted driving, “without the stress of being behind the wheel,” Knoles says. The simulator will be used at future Freshman Forward orientations, she says.
It’s also important to educate younger students on texting while driving, she says. She is interested in approaching the middle schools to spread awareness to younger students there.
At the time of the Nov. 26, 2010, car crash that killed the driver and another passenger, her 15-year-old daughter, Nicole Knoles, was the survivor. The accident report lists as contributing factors “distraction from inside vehicle (combination of eating food while driving, phone/wireless device, and passengers. Improper lane usage. Speeding in excess of postd speed limit.” Nicole told officers she remembered the driver sending a text as the drive began, and she recalled him trying to plug in his cell phone during the drive. A witness following the car said it made a “jerking” type action and crossed the center line before it hit another car head-on.
Tina Knoles is also looking to work with District 186 on updating the curriculum for driver’s education courses. The textbooks currently being used are outdated and do not include information on texting.
However, Nika says he is constantly using online resources, such as video clips or articles, to present current issues like texting while driving and to make the material more engaging for students. He says he and his students discuss texting while driving at least one class period per week for each of the nine weeks of his driver’s education course.
Why text? A psychological approach
Dr. Neil Bernstein, a private practitioner in Washington, D.C., and member of the American Psychological Association, says there are many personality types to consider when trying to understand why a person might text and drive.
Some people can rationalize the risks of texting while driving and think they are invulnerable, able to multitask with one hand on the wheel and the other on the phone, he says. Others are more compulsive; for them waiting to respond to a text is almost not an option. For others, texting is an addictive activity, where a person’s phone has become part of their life and that person cannot be without it. These addictive habits are similar to those of video game players, he says, who feel driven to pick up a game controller, just as a texter picks up a phone.
“When someone has a feeling that they can’t get along without something, that’s when it has an addictive quality,” Bernstein says.
Tate says these compulsive people are recognizable, in or out of a car.
“You can definitely tell those people before they’re in a vehicle,” Tate says. “You can probably assume they’ll be the same way after they’re inside a car.”
Other individuals are more likely to succumb to peer pressure, Bernstein says. If they don’t respond to a text, they think it might somehow impact their social status. These individuals think that if others are texting while driving, then they can do the same.
Bernstein says he thinks the younger a person is, the more likely they are to be texting. Older people tend to be “more cautious and mindful.” He says more research needs to be done on texting while driving.
“What keeps people from texting is knowing the facts,” he says.
Facing the facts
For those in Illinois, the facts include that texting while driving is illegal and it is causing car accidents. Although texting while driving is recognizable, the law against it is difficult to enforce.
The Illinois law that prohibits texting while driving became effective Jan. 1, 2010. The law bans the use of an “electronic communication device” such as a wireless phone or a portable computer for the purpose of reading, writing or sending an electronic message, according to the Illinois General Assembly website. This does not ban the use of global positioning systems.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American teenagers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010 statistics.
Sgt. Steve Anderson of the Springfield Police Department says while proving a driver has been texting is difficult, texting and driving does cause accidents. There are indicators a driver is texting, such as vehicles that weave in and out of their lane, or if a driver is at a stoplight and looking up and down a lot and doesn’t notice when the light turns green, he says.
If he pulls a driver over, that driver might not admit to texting while driving, but he can ask to see a person’s phone to look at a record of their texts, he says. However, like any other traffic violation, a person can deny the officer the right for them to search the phone.
Cameras are set up in various areas of the city, he says, which could potentially be used to watch for drivers who are texting, but “it’s not routinely done.”
Jack Campbell, chief deputy at the Sangamon County sheriff’s office, says there have been four citations and two warnings in Sangamon County for texting while driving since the law was made effective in January 2010. However, he says the number of area accidents caused by texting while driving is unavailable.
In addition to difficult enforcement, Nika says texting has gone unmentioned as a factor in serious car accidents in reports because officials must subpoena phone records to determine if texting was a cause for an accident.
“They’re not going to the next step to see if it’s texting, and so the numbers aren’t there,” Nika says.
In January of this year Illinois Tollway released a survey of tollway users and found that 40 percent of the users did not know it is illegal to text or email at any time when driving on Illinois roads.
In 2009, 26 percent of Americans ages 16 and 17 said they had texted while driving, according to a survey of 800 teens ages 12-17 done by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. However, for Americans ages 12 to 17, 48 percent said they had been in a car when the driver was texting, and males and females are equally likely to report texting behind the wheel, the research stated.
Future texting technology
Free cell phone applications like PhoneGuard that disable a phone’s texting functions when there is movement of more than 10 miles per hour, have been introduced for smart phones, but they can be easily uninstalled by users who can’t seem to fight the urge to text and drive.
That urge is becoming far too common, Nika says. The driver education teacher can’t even convince his own family members to put their phones down when they’re in the car together. And when Nika approached his former driver education students to ask if they are still texting, the response they gave only further concerned him.
“The whole class laughed at me,” Nika says. “They said of course we are.”
To Nika, effective enforcement of the law against texting while driving will only take place when all handheld phone use while driving is made illegal because spotting a driver with a phone would be easier for law enforcement to recognize.
“We’ve got to get the phones out of people’s hands,” Nika says. “That’s my simple solution.”
Hannah Douglas of Springfield, a summer graduate of Truman State University in communications, researched and wrote this article while working as a summer intern at Illinois Times. She is now pursuing her journalism career in San Francisco.
For more local information and resources on texting while driving, visit www.cyberdriverillinois.com. The driving simulator through SADD is free and available to any person or group. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.