Roundtable on distracted driving targets teens

“C’mon Arabella, you can do this. You’ve had coffee,” says the teen when she drowsily gets behind the wheel in the of David Mansour’s distracted driving PSA “Awake Not Sorry.”

Award-winning filmmaker and high school junior David Mansour’s latest production aims to slam the brakes on distracted driving. Not texting. Not drinking. But drowsy driving.

“If you’re sleepy, if you’re tired, take an Uber. Take a taxi. Stay home. Have someone else drive you. Don’t risk your life,” said Mansour.

Ed O’Connor, Regional Supervisor for NJ Division of Highway Traffic Safety said, “The good news is we are seeing a trend in the decrease in the crashes that can be attributed to distracted driving, but it’s not enough.”

At Robbinsville High School, a roundtable on how to have teens get the message. This district lost its superintendent two years ago to a teen driver on a cell phone.

Robbinsville High School chemistry teacher Jennifer Allessio said, “This year we’ve shifted our campaign mostly inward to focus on safe driving amongst our peers.”

Under Allessio’s guidance, students have organized a “Keep R Roads Safe” campaign. It includes a survey of classmates. A photo booth to pose for the most distracted behaviors behind the wheel. A banner with 227 pledges to safe driving and a film festival to show how to avoid distracted driving.

Freshman Elain Wolochuk said, “I think we’re having a huge impact.”

She said she offers to read and respond to text messages for upperclassmen driving and can tell it’s a novel idea to some. She explained, “In some cases yes. Sometimes, they’re like you sure? They’ll be like sure I have it.”

“Truly, thank you for the work that you’re doing because if it wasn’t for the effort that’s being made in high schools across New Jersey, our statistics would be even worse,” said Wendy Berk, Vice President of Brain Injury Alliance New Jersey.

The state Division of Highway Traffic Safety blames distracted driving for half of the 250,000 crashes in New Jersey.

O’Connor said, “It’s easy for us, people my age in my world, to blame the cell phone industry and with that, the younger generation for being on their phones all the time and driving. But, distracted driving has a lot more to do with distractions other than cell phones than people realize. There are distractions all over the place. I was telling a student that on the way here today I was driving and thinking about what I’m going to say and then I said to myself ‘I’m distracted right now.’”

A AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey this spring found New Jersey drivers think distracted driving is getting worse. Ninety-four percent of those respondents think others drivers are very or somewhat distracted when they text and drive. But, only 41 percent admit to feeling distracted themselves when they do the same thing.

AAA Mid-Atlantic public and government affairs manager Tracy Noble said, “So people believe that they can multitask, but when they see someone else doing it that driver is clearly disobeying the law and is clearly at fault.” When suggested that there may be a lot of room for education on this topic, Noble responded, “There is. We need a culture change.”

Perhaps it’s on the way. It seems to be the vision of the Acting Commissioner of Department of Banking and Insurance who convened this roundtable to hear from some enlightened teens.

Commissioner Marlene Caride said, “I think this is wonderful. This is our future generation and they’re able to inspire generations that come in. To inspire their upper classmates and they can inspire the adults.”