By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
Most students at Boys & Girls Club of Peoria are not old enough to drive, and many have yet to own a cell phone, but they recently had an opportunity to experience the dangers when the two come together.
The It Can Wait campaign visited Peoria, Nov. 14, and with it came a virtual reality simulator, which allowed kids to experience the consequences of taking their eyes off the wheel and putting them on a cell phone.
AT&T started the campaign in 2010 with the goal to get 16 million kids by the end of this year to pledge not to drive distracted. So far, they reached more than 10 million.
Isaiah Estrada, 17, a student at Peoria High School, signed the pledge after using the virtual reality simulator.
He said the experience affected him, and he will likely warn others not to text and drive if the situation occurs.
The teen plans to get his license when he turns 18.
“It was eye opening. It made me realize how dangerous it can be,” he said. “I won’t be using the phone while driving.”
Toni Morales, director of external affairs at AT&T, said 60 kids signed the pledge at the Boys & Girls Club.
The plan is to help ensure that everyone understands the dangerous consequences of distracted driving, no matter what their age, she said.
“We’ve found that when someone tries the simulator, it’s an eye-opening experience and they usually take our pledge to keep their eyes on the road,” she said. “It’s an especially important message for kids and new drivers to learn safe habits at a young age, but even adults need the reminder.”
But it’s not just text messaging — distracted driving is any activity that could take away a person’s attention from driving. Ms. Morales said any distraction could endanger a driver, passenger or pedestrian.
Earlier this year, AT&T released data showing Arizona, which has not passed legislation against hand-held cell phone use, has a roughly 17 percent higher rate of texting while driving than states with statewide bans.
Ms. Morales said seven in 10 people still engage in smartphone activities while driving.
The company looked at three months of anonymized data on the AT&T network, and estimated the rates of texting while driving across the United States.
Pima and Coconino counties, as well as the cities of Tucson, Tempe, Phoenix and Flagstaff have some sort of distracted driver law on the books.
Brandon Sheffert, a spokesman for Peoria police, said Peoria does not have an ordinance specific to distracted driving. However, Peoria police can cite a driver for texting while driving if it causes danger, for example, if the driver is swerving.
“We do see distracted driving, as in vehicles not staying in their lanes due to texting. But the violation would not be distracted driving. The violation would be failure to remain in a single lane,” he said.
Alberto Gutier, Governor’s Office Of Highway Safety director, said bills regarding distracted driving have been sponsored at the state Legislature, but politics has gotten in the way.
“Distracted driving is a horrendous practice, but attempts at bills have died,” he said. “We’ve got to have sponsors from both sides of the aisle. There have been bills sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, but there hasn’t been consensus.”
Other West Valley cities that do not have distracted driving ordinances include Glendale and Surprise.
Norm Owens, a spokesman for Surprise police, concurred with Mr. Gutier that the state Legislature has tried to pass distracted driving laws, but had little success.
“One of the most difficult parts of that issue is determining exactly what actions constitute distracted driving and how you would go about proving it,” he said.
Michelle Donati-Grayman, a spokeswoman for AAA Arizona, said Arizona and Montana are the only two states that do not have a statewide texting-while-driving ban for novice drivers.
She said one way to attack the problem is to strengthen the state’s existing Graduated Driver License laws, which gradually introduces teenagers to driving. It includes a supervised learner’s period, an intermediate license after passing a road test, and then a license with full privileges.
To apply for a GDL in Arizona, a teen must be at least 15 years and six months old and have held an instruction permit for at least six months.
However, the state’s current GDL law does not have a restriction prohibiting teens from using a mobile device of any kind while driving during the first six months after they earn their unrestricted license.
Given teens’ likelihood to engage with a mobile device, it makes sense to strengthen the existing GDL law by adding this prohibition, which can help new drivers create safe, long-term driving habits, Ms. Donati-Grayman said.
“As a safety advocate, AAA recognizes that distracted driving is an epidemic on our roadways. While this is true for all drivers, it is especially prevalent among our youngest and most inexperienced drivers,” she said. “Today’s teens have grown up in the age of connectedness, which can make it even more dangerous when they take on the responsibility of learning to drive. In fact, car crashes remain the leading cause of death for teens, outpacing the number of deaths by alcohol, drugs and suicide combined.”