Montco launches campaign to stop distracted driving

“Where r” — “This is the text that changed my life forever,” says a young man doing rehab, who appears to have suffered a brain injury. A group of girls sing “Happy Birthday” to a girl who died in a car crash who would have celebrated her 19th birthday. A police officer relates arriving at the scene of a fatal accident of a teen who had been reading a text.

Heart-wrenching stories looped on a video screen as about 60 Abington and Cheltenham high school students, community members, police, county and other officials found seats for the kickoff of a yearlong campaign to discourage distracted driving Jan. 29 at Abington Memorial Hospital’s Frobese Auditorium.

The Distracted Driving Awareness and Prevention Campaign, sponsored by the Montgomery County Health Department, county commissioners, county district attorney’s office, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Abington Memorial and the Abington Police Department, will include community events, health fairs, high school and corporate outreach, as well as reaching the online and digital communities, according to a county press release.

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Texting while driving, which takes about 4.6 seconds, is akin to driving the length of a football field at 55 mph blindfolded, said Katie Kucz of the county health department. “No text is worth the risk,” she said.

County Commissioners’ Chairman Josh Shapiro, who sponsored and pushed for a 2012 law that makes texting while driving a primary offense, led a parade of speakers who provided grim statistics and urged those attending to refrain from distracted driving and sign an online pledge to not text and drive at www.itcanwait.com.

“Distracted driving is a key safety issue in the county,” Shapiro said, and the cause of “senseless injury and senseless death. … It’s really about education,” he said, that “texting and driving doesn’t mix.”

County Commissioner Leslie Richards, relating the story of a girl killed while texting and crossing a street at night in front of Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School by the driver who failed to see her, noted, “It impacts your life forever when you’re involved in an accident like this.”

“The hardest thing we have to do is to tell a parent their son or daughter is dead,” Abington Memorial trauma surgeon James V. Yuschak said. “Texting and distracted driving is 100 percent preventable.”

People are “injured, killed or guilt-ridden forever,” and sometimes land in jail, he said, urging everyone to pull over before sending or reading a text. “There is nothing that important that a text message has” to say.

More than 14,600 crashes, 57 of which were fatalities, involved a distracted driver in Pennsylvania in 2012, PennDOT safety press officer Brad Rudolph said. Almost 11 percent of crashes in the state over the past five years involved distracted driving, resulting in more than 300 fatalities statewide, he said.

One in four teens responds to a text message every time they get into a vehicle, Rudolph said, adding that’s “5 seconds of not looking at the road.” Distracted drivers are “three times more likely to get into a crash,” he said.

It was noted that 49 percent of adults have also admitted to texting while driving.

“Lives are changed forever in that split-second,” said Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele, who had a list of 21 killed in the county, which is seeing “more and more accidents related to distracted driving.”

This year the county has dealt with crashes in which pedestrians were killed “because people did not keep their eyes on the road,” Steele said. “Driving is a privilege and responsibility” to oneself, passengers and others on the road, he said. “If you are distracted it can make a difference in everyone’s life.”

“A driver’s ultimate responsibility is what they choose to do and not do; it could be the difference between saving their life and others,” state police Trooper Morgan Crummy said. Police do look into whether a crash was caused by distracted driving, which can lead to serious criminal charges, she said.

Studies have shown that “texting is as dangerous, or even more dangerous than driving under the influence,” said Brandi Chawaga of the county health department. Texting while driving slows reactions by 35 percent, compared to 21 percent for driving under the influence, she said. She urged attendees to sign a pledge vowing not to text and drive at the event or online and spoke about a free app that can send an auto-reply or route calls directly to voicemail when someone is driving, available at www.att.com/DriveMode.

Follow Linda Finarelli on Twitter @lkfinarelli.

Information from The Reporter, www.thereporteronline.com