Akst: Beware of ‘phone involvement’

I was heading home on Sycamore Road a while back. The weather was fine but traffic was heavy. I was in the right-hand lane near Jewel-Osco.

Initially, the two young people in the car next to me obviously enjoying a cheerful conversation made me smile.

Then I realized there were three people in the conversation, not two: the driver, the passenger, and whoever the driver was texting.

The driver had both hands on the wheel, at 11 and 1. In between, her thumbs were conjuring the ubiquitous modern-day communication miracle.

I got scared because there was nowhere for me to escape if she caused a crash. Traffic was too heavy.

She avoided rear-ending the car in front of her by a hair’s breadth, slamming on the brakes so hard that her phone flew out of her hands and landed on the dash.

Barely a second after recovering from the shock of almost causing a crash, she retrieved her phone and started texting AGAIN!

The only words that come to mind are from the fabulous humor writer Dave Barry, who often wrote, “I am not making this up.”

But this week, I got a chance to write a story for the Daily Chronicle about a national teen safe driving competition State Farm Insurance is holding to bring increased attention to the national plague that is distracted driving.

It’s called Celebrate My Drive. The idea is to get people to log on to the competition website – celebratemydrive.com – support a school (in this case, DeKalb High School), and electronically commit, once a day, every day between Oct. 18 and Oct. 26, to drive as safely as you can.

The more pledges a school receives, the better chance it has of winning one of 90 grants worth $25,000 each from State Farm. There are also 10 grants of $100,000 each, and the grand prize is a $100,000 grant plus a hometown concert from singer Kelly Clarkson.

The competition is designed to be fun because as State Farm says, “Research shows that sharing and celebrating positive teen driver safety messages with today’s young drivers is more powerful than scaring them with the possibility of negative outcomes.”

My inner cynic realizes that our insurance company is shelling out $3.25 million to fund this raffle, which led me to wonder how our premiums are really spent, but I shook that off.

The really good part is that the folks I talked to for this story aren’t involved just for a shot at money and a concert, though winning would be sweet.

They were involved because they realize distracted driving, which also includes wearing ear buds, driving with music too loud and connecting devices to cars to play music, is a serious problem. Two DeKalb juniors said if anything, the problem of texting while driving is worse than it seems.

That’s scary because it seems pretty bad.

In researching the story, I found two compelling bits of data. One is that the National Safety Council says that this year alone, more than 750,000 crashes involving drivers using cellphones and texting have happened.

The other is a 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of distracted driving. Young drivers 18 to 20 years old reported the highest level of “phone involvement” (13 percent) in a crash or near-crash. Eight percent were sending a text or email, 3 percent were reading a text or email, and 2 percent said they were talking on a cellphone.

You’ve heard this before in public service announcements, but if the message is important enough, sometimes it must be repeated.

Focus on driving while driving.

Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.