by Linda Esterson, photography by Bill Ryan
Maddie Smith climbed into a go-kart and buckled the seat belt.
The 15-year-old had never before operated a motor vehicle, not a car nor a go-kart, but she felt herself up for the task. With her left foot on the brake pedal and her right on the gas, she puttered around the make-shift track marked by dozens of bright orange traffic cones at South Western High School. Then, on this particular sunny fall morning, she went around again.
The second time proved more difficult as her cell phone – really her friends – worked to distract her intentionally by sending text messages. As she proceeded, with phone in hand, she failed to navigate corners and hit many cones.
“I had a lot on my mind; I couldn’t focus,” said the sophomore. “I kept trying to keep my eyes up but my phone kept buzzing. I thought it would be easier because you see a lot of people do it.”
Smith is one of about 180 sophomores who drove distractedly as part of the South Hanover school’s safety education course. The experience is offered to all 300 students enrolled in the course during the fall and spring semesters, through a dedicated public and private sector partnership between Hickory Falls Family Entertainment Center, All State Insurance, and the local fire department.
The program included a lecture from firefighter Ken Kuhn, of the Department of Fire Rescue, who shared startling statistics – that drivers under 25 years of age are more likely to text and drive than others and that the 1.6 million accidents each year in the United States caused by cell phone use result in 330,000 injuries and 11,000 teen deaths.
“Out of this class of 14, three of you would get to go home,” he stated.
Distracted driving includes texting, eating and drinking, driving following alcohol consumption, and also sleepy driving. Of the 100,000 accidents reported annually as a result of sleepy driving, 1,500 deaths result. About 55 percent of these accidents are caused by drivers under age 25, he said.
Kuhn explained that someone driving 70 miles per hour who falls asleep for 2.5 seconds will travel 300 feet, the length of a football field. If the car collides with another vehicle traveling 70 mph, the impact would be 140 mph. Teens who awaken early for school, then attend classes, play sports and work a job to drive home after 18 waking hours are affected just like someone being legally drunk. They could be liable for an accident.
Kelly McKee, a local All State agent and former Shock Trauma nurse, is passionate about keeping teens safe on the roads. She worked to get the All State Program “X the Text” underway. Rick Martz, owner of Hickory Falls, contacted McKee and they teamed with Kuhn to develop the program as it exists today.
On this day, each class divided in half. The first group ventured outside to experience distracted driving first-hand. Some took their phones with them to receive text message while they operated the go kart. Others wore distorted goggles, which simulate brain activity following two alcoholic beverages. Students attempted to walk along a yellow line and operate the go kart while visually impaired.
Nick Gerke, 16, hit a few cones while wearing the “drunk goggles.”
“The goggles made me really dizzy,” he said. “It was hard to drive and to concentrate where the lines were. I hit a few cones and didn’t even realize it. I could hit somebody and not notice and keep on going.”
The rest of the students remained in the classroom for the presentation by Kuhn, who began by telling students they may save a life with what they learn. After sharing the startling statistics, Kuhn turned the session over to P.J. Sneeringer, a 1999 New Oxford High School graduate, whose car stopped for construction was rear-ended by a truck driver traveling 73 mph. Sneeringer, asleep in the back seat, was crushed. His father-in-law in the passenger seat and his two dogs alongside him were killed. His wife, the driver, survived. Sneeringer sustained a major brain injury which affected all aspects of his life. Although doctors told his family he had a 30 percent chance of awakening from the coma, he did after eight months. However, he awoke in the state of a baby and had to relearn every aspect of life. Three years of daily therapy helped him regain functioning and ultimately pass his driving test. He walks with a limp and talks with very slurred speech. On this day, he delivered a poignant message.
“I don’t know what the truck driver was doing, texting or sleeping,” he said. “Nobody needs to be on their phones. You need to watch what you’re doing. How would you feel if you kill someone?”
He also explained that movies that depict people waking up from comas and walking away are “junk.”
“It takes years and years,” said Sneeringer, who needed to relearn how to cry, to smile and to use his senses.
After Sneeringer’s talk, Kuhn shared a video simulating a three-car accident caused by a teenage driver who was texting. Kuhn explained how over 1,000 people could be impacted by the accident — from the families and friends of the four teenagers in the first car to the mother, father and baby killed in the second car and a toddler remaining alive parentless. He had the students envision the funeral for the parents and baby, with a packed church, and the little girl at the scene, asking the rescue worker why her parents wouldn’t awaken. He discussed the impact of the foster family or the grandparents who now must raise the girl, both emotionally and financially, and of course, her mental capacity to deal with the situation at the time and throughout her life.
Responders, firefighter Kuhn said, are not permitted to lie or say that “everything will be alright.” But they also can’t bear to tell the truth. When he returns home after responding to a bad accident, he realizes he doesn’t say much to his children, both in high school, or to his wife. They probably wonder what they’ve done to upset him, but he’s quietly processing the tragedy he’s seen that day. He cited a few recent accidents in Hanover that resulted from distracted driving. One resulted simply from an elderly man having a conversation with his wife and failing to notice a red light before hitting a truck. Another, two blocks from the firehouse, occurred when four girls played hooky from school, went through a stop sign and hit a tree. The two girls in the backseat were playing drums on the heads of the girls in the front seat. The girl in the passenger seat was killed. Her parents never got to say goodbye.
“My wish is to never pull another teenager out of a car,” said Kuhn, who estimates he responds personally to accidents involving teenagers as many as 12 times a year. “We have to get all of the phones out of the hands of drivers and separate drinking and driving… The two don’t just go hand in hand. It’s a responsibility not to drive.”
Following completion of both parts of the program, students pledge not to drive distractedly by putting their thumbprint on a poster that hangs in the school. They receive free passes to Hickory Falls in exchange for their commitment.
Hickory Falls Owner Martz told the class that his first employee was killed by a drunk driver. He lost his uncle that way as well. He knew he needed to get the message out, especially to kids.
“We need to prove that they just can’t do it,” said Martz, about texting and drinking and driving. “We’re just giving them something to remember when they’re making the decision to get behind the wheel and text. They might think twice about it.”
Greg Sprenkle, the school’s safety education teacher, reinforced the need for programs such as this one.
“It’s so valuable for them to get in that go kart and do it,” Sprenkle said. “Just taking their eyes off the road for a second can make a huge difference.”