04/29/10 — Highway Patrol takes aim at teens who text while driving

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Highway Patrol takes aim at teens who text while driving

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 29, 2010 1:46 PM

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A Rosewood High School student checks a text message while navigating a cone course and watching out for pedestrians during an exercise set up by the Highway Patrol to illustrate how quickly a motorist can be distracted while driving.

Highway Patrolman Bennie Grady is troubled by the large number of teenage motor vehicle deaths that happened in Johnston County in recent years, and is hoping he can do something to prevent them from occurring in Wayne County.

Grady worked with the Highway Patrol in Johnston County for four years before being assigned to Wayne County. He has made it his mission to get the message out about teen driver safety.

One way to accomplish that is through the school district, he said.

"When I first started in this county, I met with all the principals about what we as troopers see on the road. A lot of people view us as just out there writing tickets," he said. "I can promise you, all of us would rather prevent wrecks and stuff than have to be going to someone's house to deliver the news when someone passes."

Law enforcement has avidly backed safety messages in schools, particularly for young drivers. Among its most popular programs has been one on the perils of drinking and driving, where teens take part in a simulated exercise demonstrating what it is actually like to operate a car while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

But these days there are other distractions that can be just as dangerous, Grady said. Such as talking on cell phones and the increasingly prevalent habit teens have of texting on a phone while driving.

"With texting being everybody's life now, we're just really trying to focus on that, trying to get our communities involved," Grady said.

The state has worked hard to broadcast the safety message, Grady said, with local agencies helping to provide outreach programs through the schools.

Response to the program on texting and driving was immediate, he said, and last week was the first of what he hopes will be many such presentations.

"This year is going to be an explosive year with the program that we have coming," he said. "We're trying to bring so much awareness here before this county becomes another Johnston County."

The first session was held at Rosewood High School, with a portion dedicated to a hands-on activity -- allowing students to experience what can happen in a split-second when that text message comes in.

Students were taken outside to an open area of the parking lot, where a driving course marked by traffic cones had been set up.

A select group actually navigated the course, accompanied by a trooper and taken on a run-through. Then it was staged as if one of their friends sent a text message.

"They'll receive it and they have to drive and understand what the text is, and still continue driving," Grady said. "Readily they see how fast you lose concentration.

"What we see most of the time is drivers will just for a moment forget they're driving and drive into the cones."

After the demonstration, students gathered in a classroom where they were shown a video and talked about safety, Grady said, as well as the consequences of not paying attention while driving.

"It's just been a positive thing," he said. "Even up here in Rosewood where there wasn't much talk about it. Some of the community found out about it, and I think it's a very positive response that we're getting and people will see that we're actually trying to make a difference.

"I don't know that we'll ever to able to change (the statistics of teen drivers) but just to be able to educate them ... One day we're going to be questioned about what did we do. We're not going to be held accountable for making changes, but I don't believe anyone will be able to point a negative finger at us for trying."