In the past, traffic officials have urged drivers not to drink and drive. Today, they're cautioning young drivers not to text and drive.
In 2010, distracted driving – which includes texting while driving – claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people nationally and transportation and other officials say those numbers are likely to increase as the number of cellphones people own recently surpassed the population of the United States – at 311 million. As a result, officials are ramping up awareness efforts.
"The one thing that I can visibly see is [the connection between deaths and injuries] and texting and driving," said AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson. "We've made [texting] so natural to kids that they don't even think about it. Let's start with raising awareness to young kids right now."
Stephenson, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, George Washington University [GWU] President Steven Knapp and author, actor and activist Hill Harper joined local, national and regional transportation officials to commemorate No Text on Board Pledge Day at GWU in Northwest on Sept. 19.
The event ran in conjunction with the university's eighth annual Safety Expo, and attracted a large crowd of students, faculty members and District residents. University Yard served as a backdrop for a safety festival as representatives from D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a host of other safety agencies set up shop on the grounds.
Armed with Apple iPad tablets, AT&T employees moved through the crowd which numbered in the hundreds and collected signatures for the company's No Text on Board pledge which is part of the company's It Can Wait initiative that was launched three years ago.
"Three-and-a-half years ago, when we started this campaign [at] the Distracted Driving Summit right here in Washington, nobody was talking about distracted driving. Nobody was paying attention to it," said LaHood. "Only 18 states had passed laws [against distracted driving]. Today, 39 states have passed laws. People now understand that distracted driving is a serious, serious way to cause accidents and injuries."
While distracted driving remained the primary focus of the event, there are a number of other factors that determine motorists' safety. Marion Flythe, 46, trekked a few blocks over to the Safety Expo from her office on campus. Although she said she doesn't text while driving, Flythe learned the proper way to extinguish a fire by participating in one of the many interactive demonstrations.
A controlled fire quickly became a crowd favorite as a long line of people waited for the opportunity to extinguish the live fire. A small orange flame roared from a four-foot stove-like surface and the distinct smell of kerosene permeated the air. Participants grabbed a silver fire extinguisher and took turns putting the fire out under the supervision and with guidance from three safety officials.
"I've never had experience using a fire extinguisher even though I have them in my home," said the Suitland, Md. resident. "I learned that you are to remove the pin from the extinguisher, aim at the base of the fire and make sure that you're at least 15 feet away from the fire and spray from side to side. It was a good experience."
Brian Dito, 25, stumbled around for a few minutes while donning a pair of goggles that impaired his vision and severely affected his equilibrium – the goggles created a feeling of intoxication – similar to that of a drunk driver. Dito struggled to stand upright and his motor skills had been totally compromised. While he said that he doesn't drink and drive, he thought that he'd fare better with the simulation.
"I actually did think that I would be fine and would walk straight," said Dito, who is enrolled in the international affairs graduate program at GWU. "But it was pretty disorienting and I couldn't [walk] a straight line. A lot of people have a relaxed attitude toward safety, but having events like this brings the issue to the forefront. I think it's good that people are becoming informed."
The event was the first of many that AT&T's Stephenson said the company has planned for college campuses across the nation and is one program that he hopes expands as awareness increases.
For Stephenson, there's more to be done.
"We're not going to be content until those 100,000 accidents and deaths per year [due to distracted driving] begin to move noticeably downward. So we're working hard to expand the movement. I want to ask everyone here to get involved," he said.