A year ago, I graduated from a small college in Rhode Island where we had those narrow New England roads weaving mercilessly between dense forests and wetlands. The administration would often put up flyers around campus urging us not to text and drive. The statistics were endless: "3,000 people are killed by distracted driving each year," and "Sending a text message while driving is as dangerous as driving with a .08 BAC." But what did that really mean? Driving is such a mundane task; the risk one takes sending a text message doesn't compute, and the sterility of statistics can't make the case for abstaining. Even after years of statistical inundation, it took a lot more than numbers to stop me from texting and driving.
A few years ago, my friend Michael was driving home. It was late at night, and he was texting his girlfriend when his car flipped off the road into a retention pond. He had to cut himself free from his seatbelt and scramble on his stomach through muddy water to get out from under the car. He was the first of my friends to stop texting while he drove.
Not long after that, two more of my friends were speeding down another narrow New England road when they got a text. Their car hit a bump and the driver lost control, slamming the car into a tree, ejecting both of them. The driver died before the ambulance arrived. The other had brain damage and extensive facial scarring.
There is nothing unsettling about reading, "A text message takes your eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds," but the same can't be said about seeing one of your friends lying in a hospital bed where the balloons say "Get Well Soon," and the doctor doesn't know if he'll ever be able to read again. That's when I stopped texting and driving.
After graduation I moved out to Los Angeles where I met Gail Schenbaum, one of the co-founders of a non-profit, Streetwise Media. We shared stories with one another that were all too familiar: she attended three funerals in two years with her high-school aged daughters for kids killed by texting while driving. The local community was devastated and in the aftermath she and her co-founder Cheryl Wada created In One Instant: Teen Safe Driving Program.
When they invited me to attend one of their events, an assembly at a local high school, I was skeptical -- overly familiar with the concept of safe-driving programs: catchy slogans, ribbon wearing and statistics. Lots of statistics. I had been through these programs time and time again, as had Michael and the rest of our friends. I asked how this one could be any different, but Gail urged me, "Just come."
It opened with a movie that follows three teens as they ditch school. Bad decisions get made -- one student ends up paralyzed, the other dead. The story shifts to follow the third student, the driver of the vehicle, as he goes through court wracked with guilt, gets charged with vehicular manslaughter, and ends with him in a jail cell. Afterwards, there were additional components, all peer-led. After a mock funeral procession, adapted from the CHP "Every Fifteen Minutes" program, students read speeches they had written to loved ones as though they died that day. That's followed by stories from teens that had been in texting-related crashes from all across the country with pictures of the brutal aftermath.
The efficacy is almost electric. The same teenage audience that mocked and laughed at the initial "fun" scenes in the movie are now dead silent. The air starts to feel heavy, like everyone can hear every sound you make. It's a tough thing to sit through.
Walking out of the auditorium, I was taken aback by the outpouring of support we got from these teens, an age group that can be so cynical. When one of them confided feeling as though she had personally lost a friend, I realized that this was what a teen safe driving program needed to be: visually stimulating, emotionally resonant and peer-driven. A visceral experience that statistics cannot encapsulate.
(I've since learned that the film has won several awards, and both Los Angeles city officials and the California State Senate have recognized the program and its co-founders.)
For me, it took two hospital visits and a funeral to learn not to text and drive. Teens think they're invincible until something proves them wrong -- I know I did -- so I asked to get involved full-time. My wake up call was a funeral. For these kids, it's In One Instant.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.