DeKALB – Jacob Alvarez knows he’ll be tempted to text and drive as soon as he gets his license this summer.
Alvarez, 15, is taking a driver’s education course with about 60 other students at DeKalb High School, 501 W. Dresser Road in DeKalb. He said he even catches his parents texting and driving every once in a while.
“Everyone at some point in their life texts and drives,” Alvarez said. “I’ve never seen my friends text while driving, but I know they do it because everyone does.”
Alvarez’s perception doesn’t entirely match reality, although it’s not wholly inaccurate. A recently released study by the Centers for Disease Control found 41 percent of teenagers were texting and driving in 2013. That’s a bigger percentage when compared to the nearly 35 percent of teens who said they were drinking alcohol.
In Illinois, the numbers are slightly greater. About 45 percent of Illinois high school teens said they text and drive: about 43 percent for girls and 47 percent for boys. Meanwhile, about 37 percent said they drink alcohol: 39 percent for girls and 34 percent for boys.
Driving instructors at DeKalb High are spreading the message about the dangers of texting and driving. Last year, they won a $25,000 grant through the Celebrate My Drive campaign to raise awareness about teen driving safety. This year, an Illinois State Police state trooper and the school resource officer gave talks telling students about the dangers.
At Genoa-Kingston School District 424, Superintendent Joe Burgess said he expects the curriculum to focus more on having students tell their peers not to text and drive because teenagers are more likely to listen to other teenagers rather than adults.
“That helps immensely,” Burgess said. “Kids [will] have the courage to stand up to their peers and say, ‘Hey put it away. I’m in here too.’ “
It is illegal for anyone in Illinois to send text messages while driving. Hands-free devices are required when using a phone, but drivers can’t use their phones at all while driving until they are 18 years old.
Even so, the National Safety Council estimates about 1 in 4 traffic crashes, or about 1.3 million a year, were linked to drivers texting or talking on cellphones in 2010.
“A person just passed us in a no-passing zone on Dresser Road talking on their phone,” said Tim Holt, DeKalb driving instructor, just after a driving lesson with a student. “We see people all the time on their phones.”
Texting and driving is the biggest danger with the younger age group, partially because they cannot legally drink alcohol, said Mark Sykes, DeKalb High School driving instructor.
That’s why instructors emphasize its dangers on a regular basis during class, Sykes said.
“These kids are so good on their phones,” Sykes said. “They have that mindset they’re invincible.”
An entire chapter of DeKalb’s driver’s education textbook is dedicated to distracted driving. Driving instructor John Cordes said he also shows students eye-opening videos about texting and driving.
“It can be nothing but bad if you’re texting and driving,” Cordes said. “If you get away with it your first time, you’re going to think you can do it again. Eventually, it’s going to catch up to you.”
Morgan Karolus, who hopes to get her license when she turns 16 on May 22, said friends sometimes tell her to reply to a text message for them when they are driving. She also tells her friends to put their phones down whenever she catches them trying to use them behind the wheel.
“Some people think they just have to respond to that text message,” she said. “They think it’s going to be really important that it can’t wait.
“That text message doesn’t need to be opened or replied to. It can wait.”