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Could This Be The Year Lawmakers Ban Texting While Driving?

Syndi Bultman, a trauma nurse and injury prevention manager at Lee Memorial Health System, explains the distracted driving simulator

The Governor’s Highway Safety Association says the number of 16 and 17-year-old driver deaths in the U.S. was up 19 percent in the first half of 2012. Five Florida drivers that age died in the first six months of last year.

Studies show drivers are 23 times more likely to crash while texting. Yet, Florida is one of only a few states that doesn’t ban cell phone use or texting while driving. That could change this year with seven bills introduced in the legislature and two moving through committee. Meanwhile, there’s new technology that lets teens see what it’s like to drive while distracted. It’s now part of The Lee County Injury Prevention Coalition’s monthly Young Driver Program.

Sixteen-year-old Joe Faber of Fort Myers was one of the first students to sit down at the “One Simple Decision” simulation program.  It’s a computer set up at a desk with a steering wheel, accelerator, brake pedals and an interactive screen.

Syndi Bultman, a trauma nurse and injury prevention manager at Lee Memorial Health System, explained how it worked to Faber.

“This will show you your rear view mirrors along here. Do you have a cell phone or do you want to use it on screen?” she asked.

Faber chose to use the cell phone that popped up on the screen. He got his driver’s license a few months ago. And his mother, Anne Marie Faber, said she brought him to the class because she’s very overprotective. So, it wasn’t easy for her to watch him listen to his pestering computer passenger as she bugged him to call and then text someone.

“Thanks for taking me home. I don’t live that far. Just go straight. This seatbelt is so uncomfortable. I’m not going to wear it,” said a computer voice. “Take a right here. Can you call my brother and see if he’s home? Hey look at that deer!”

As Faber was complying with his computer passenger’s request to text her brother using the on-screen cell phone, he crashed the simulated vehicle. The program goes on to show him the helicopter ambulance sent to rescue them. Remember -- his passenger took off her seatbelt.

“We’ve got some facial trauma there. Went through the windshield unrestrained,” said the EMT’s computer voice.

The program takes Faber all the way through his court date before a judge who explains what happens after he’s charged with reckless driving causing injury. Bultman said this follow up is important.

“It shows them what the consequences are because of the decisions we make while we’re behind the wheel,” she said.

“Showed me how easy it is to get in an accident by distracted driving,” said Faber. “Really gave me the reality of what can happen if you make bad choices.”

Faber had driver’s ed at school. But when he came to the Young Driver Program, he found sort of a “scared straight” for new drivers. The free class for 15 to 21-year-olds was the result of brainstorming among people court-ordered to take a high-risk course. Their fee also pays for this one. Bultman shows before and after photos of teens that have been in crashes.

“This young man here had been a star football player, straight-A student. He’s out driving one day by himself on the road, he’s taking a curve a little bit too fast, lost control and hit into a tree,” she said.  “Well, this young man is breathing on his own. His heart is beating on its own. But he never really woke up. Doesn’t recognize his parents. Doesn’t recognize any of his friends. He is fed through a feeding tube ‘cause he’s not awake enough to feed him by mouth. Somebody has to turn him every two hours to make sure he doesn’t have any skin break down. And somebody needs to clean him up after he goes to the bathroom because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt when he lost control of that vehicle.”

Faber and his classmates also don special “impairment goggles” they get from Lee County sheriff’s corporal Leonard Gould who has dealt with traffic fatalities and DUIs for 18 years. He directs each student through a different DUI test.

“What you’re going to do is you’re going to walk like this: one, two, three, four, five… touching heel to toe with each of your steps ok?” said Gould.

“Go ahead. As you can see he’s not even on the line,” he added as the other teens and their parents watched the “impaired” teen struggle to see straight.

And if you think there’s no connection between feeling that woozy and using your cell phone while driving, think again. Bultman cites a study by Car and Driver Magazine that showed texting while driving is worse than drinking and driving.

“It’s actually been proven that you are driving the same as somebody with a blood alcohol of .08 taking space in your brain and they’re driving the same way,” said Bultman. “They’re speeding up, they’re slowing down, they’re crossing the center lane.” 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other federal agencies say distractions like cell phones, your state of mind, passengers, eating, reading and putting on makeup contribute to more than half of all crashes.  

Faber’s mom, Anne Marie Faber, said this class is not just for teens. It’s about the reality of what people are faced with on the road. 

“Even myself with distractions, we’re all trying to keep in touch and keep track of a million things and it’s a challenge to be focused and I don’t think people are as cognizant about it,” she said. “So it’s something that you really have to force yourself to focus on.”  

Presenter, retired EMS captain, Jay Anderson founded the international grassroots awareness campaign “Stay Alive Just Drive” after a distracted driver seriously injured a family member in 2003. In his lecture, he cites a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study that monitored 100 cars for about a year. Sixty five percent of the near misses involved some form of driver distraction three seconds beforehand. In three seconds a vehicle going 68 miles per hour can travel the length of a football field.

“People who typically drive between point A and point B on their cell phones have no clue how they got there and that’s what’s so scary about it and how disruptive it becomes,” said Anderson.

Anderson has endorsed a bill in this year’s legislature that would ban communicating while driving. Eleven states ban all cell phone use; 40 states ban texting and driving.  Florida currently does neither. But by the end of this legislative session it likely will. 

There are also “One Simple Decision” simulators at the Kissimmee Police Department, the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office, Tampa’s AAA Auto Club South and at Gaither High School in Tampa.