It is a potential killer whose numbers rival the deadly Ebola virus and it doesn’t get near the attention it should. Unlike the dreaded illness currently ravaging West Africa this is one with a quick cure.
This killer? Texting while driving. The cure? Don’t do it. There is no text so urgent as to distract you in a machine weighing two tons that takes half a football field to stop if you are driving only 55 mph. And who drives 55 mph anymore?
Studies from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Information Institute for Highway Safety put the number of annual deaths from texting while driving at somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000. Do the math. That’s roughly 10 or more deaths per day in the United States.
Georgia has had a law on the books since 2010 that prohibits texting while driving. It is known as the Caleb Law, named for Caleb Sorohan, of Rutledge, a young man who lost his life a few days before Christmas in 2009. It was determined that texting while driving was the cause. Caleb’s family was a prime force in the passage of the law.
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But, sadly, it is a tough law to enforce. Law enforcement officers pretty much have to catch someone in the act. The result is that too many times they are dealing with the tragic aftermath of someone’s poor decision to text and drive.
Harris Blackwood, the director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, says of texting while driving, “Trying to convince teens, who think they are invincible, that this could kill them, is tough. Someone who is engaged in texting is just as dangerous as a driver who is legally drunk.” Blackwood adds, “But don’t think this is only a ‘teen thing.’ Many teens do this because they have seen their parents do it.”
Merritt Levitan, of Boston, was a vivacious 18-year-old scholar-athlete soon to enter Colgate University. Her life ended July 3 last year while on a cross-country cycling trip from Charleston, S.C. to California with a group of friends. In Arkansas, they were struck from behind by a 21-year-old man in a pickup truck who was -- you guessed it -- texting. Six of the young riders were seriously injured. Merritt Levitan died from brain injuries.
Merritt’s parents, Anna and Richard Levitan, have recently moved to Saint Simons Island from the Boston area and like the Sorohans are doing their part to turn their personal tragedy into an opportunity to save other young lives -- and ours -- from similar tragedies.
Following her death, a group of Merritt’s classmates at Milton Academy in Massachusetts founded the “TextLess Live More” campaign in her honor. Their mission is to decrease excessive phone use and organize “text-free” phone days. One of the young organizers said, “We want to change behavior. We want people to start texting less in their daily lives.” On the first TextLess day in October 2013, 500 individuals signed up.
They’ve also distributed more than 10,000 blue “TextLess Live More for Merritt” bracelets, along with kits explaining their mission. In addition, Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gus on the AMC hit show, “Breaking Bad” has filmed two excellent public service announcements for the campaign. You can check them out at Textlesslivemore.org.
The “TextLess Live More” movement is beginning to spread throughout the country. I am hoping it makes its way into Georgia’s high schools and colleges. It couldn’t come soon enough.
Anna Levitan says the campaign is not meant to discourage people from using their cellphones but to encourage them to step outside their virtual world and spend time helping others -- as Merritt did.
As for Teagan Martin, of Newport, Ark., a student at the University of Arkansas, and the driver of the pickup truck that took the life of their daughter, he was recently sentenced to community service. Ms. Levitan says they have forgiven him. “We are encouraging him to rebuild his life,” she states,” and we are hoping he will join us in our efforts.” I hope he does, too.
There is nothing so important in our lives that we have to text while we drive. It is a stupid, undisciplined habit and it needs to stop. We may never find a cure for Ebola, but we can damned sure cure this idiotic obsession with texting while behind the wheel of a car. The world is dangerous enough as it is. It is time we text less and live more.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.