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September 26, 2012

Simulator drives home dangers of texting on the road

TERRE HAUTE — Alex Farmer has taken a pledge not to text while driving.

The Terre Haute North Vigo High School senior was among several students Tuesday who used a driving simulator to learn about the dangers of texting behind the wheel.

“I tried reading a message on my phone once, and I ran up onto a curb,” he admitted, “so I decided not to ever do it again, because the next time it might not be a sidewalk.”

Farmer said he has seen other drivers texting while in motion, and it is easy to spot the hazard.

“They weave all over the place and cut you off,” he said.

The Vigo County School Corp. hosted the AT&T awareness campaign by bringing in state officials to talk to teen drivers about Indiana’s law banning texting while driving.

The law bans texting for drivers of all ages while the vehicle is in motion. Fines began July 1, 2011, for anyone caught texting while driving, and for those younger than 18 who use a cell phone while driving. Violators can be fined up to $500.

The driving simulator was set up on the stage in the school auditorium, and as students crowded around the flatscreen to “drive” and text, they often made comments as the “driver” travelled erratically — and one time — hit a dog that ran into the street.

The simulator experience allows a student to use an electronic steering wheel and pedals, similar to a video game, to navigate a virtual road course shown on a computer monitor. As they steer, they are asked to send and receive text messages in real time on a mobile device. The program tracks the driver’s performance on the road course while highlighting traffic violations, crashes and even fatalities.

Tuesday’s event was a partnership among the school district, Attorney General Greg Zoeller, State Rep. Clyde Kersey (a retired high school teacher), the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute and AT&T. It was the fifth in a series of six events around the state to educate teen drivers that texting and driving “It Can Wait.”

Zoeller continues to support the ban on texting while driving that was passed by the legislature.

“Typing messages is a needless distraction while trying to steer two tons of metal on wheels, and a threat to everyone else on the road,” Zoeller said in announcing the awareness campaign. “By texting while driving, you endanger yourself and others, so this initiative is not about individual rights but instead the state’s duty to protect the public on our highways. Now that school is back in session, young drivers must recognize there are far worse consequences to texting and driving than being pulled over and getting a ticket — potentially fatal consequences.”

AT&T Indiana President George S. Fleetwood said the national campaign to take the no-texting pledge has been well-received, and he believes Americans realize that texting while driving is an important issue.

“It’s a distraction. There’s no question about it,” Fleetwood said.

Studies show that sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent, at 55 mph, of driving the length of a football field, blind.

For Indiana drivers younger than 18, no use of personal communication devices such as cell phones and pagers is allowed while the vehicle is in motion.

Texting ranks as the No. 1 mode of communication among teens, and those between ages 12 and 17 text an average of 60 times per day, according to a national online survey conducted by AT&T in April.

According to the National Safety Council, more than 100,000 crashes per year are linked to drivers reading or sending text messages.

AT&T has launched a campaign to get Americans to pledge not to text while driving, and other wireless providers also have public awareness efforts on the issue. Some smartphone applications are available to disable a cell phone when a vehicle is moving more than 10 mph, and some newer phones come with pre-loaded no-text-and-drive technology already installed.

AT&T encourages all Hoosier drivers to join the no-texting-and-driving movement by taking an online pledge at www.itcanwait.com.

The public awareness campaign focuses on the message: No text is worth dying for.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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