Anti-texting and driving campaign finds local support

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Students at Beverly Cleary School tape a video of their discussion with Mike Maxwell, vice president and general manager of the Pacific Northwest market, and Erika Markel, director of retail execution at AT&T headquarters in Tualatin. The students gathered information for their documentary, A Message to Congress, that theyre creating for a school project. The documentary addresses the dangers of texting while driving. Portland teacher Tom Streckert wanted his students to start out the year with a focus on the big picture. Specifically, the upcoming congressional legislative session.

“He really likes C-SPAN and the news,” said Hannah White, one of his eighth-grade students at Beverly Cleary School. “He asked everyone in class to choose topics they really believe in and thought Congress should look at.”

In groups, students decided to focus largely on socioeconomic concerns, White said, like unemployment and livable wages. But White and classmates Anna Maxwell and Alexandra Stewart decided to address a danger they thought was less acknowledged: texting while driving.

“I thought that not very many people would think of it to be an issue like it is,” Maxwell explained.

This will be their entry into C-SPAN's Student Cam competition, which challenges middle school students to produce a short documentary with the theme “A Message to Congress.” Presentations must be five to seven minutes long, and must incorporate some C-SPAN footage.

To get a solid background on the issue, they visited AT&T headquarters in Tualatin to meet with Mike Maxwell, vice president and general manager of the Pacific Northwest market.

With the It Can Wait, AT&T has taken a savvy approach in raising awareness about the issue. Last year, the company arguably gave the issue greater street credit, and brought it greater publicity, by recruiting art house film director Werner Herzog to create a series of films for its public awareness campaign. The result was a 35-minute documentary, 'From One Second to the Next'. The film features interviews with families of those killed or debilitated in accidents caused by drivers distracted by texting — as well as an interview with one such driver responsible for the death of three people. The video went viral and has garnered nearly 2.7 million views on Youtube.

“We felt as a carrier we had to come out proactively and educate users and get it to stop,” Mike Maxwell said of texting while driving. “We’re glad that since then, all wireless carriers have decided to join the It Can Wait campaign. The wireless industry is very competitive, but we were more than willing to (collaborate with) the Verizons and the T-Mobiles and the Sprints. This is a wireless and really a national issue, not just an AT&T issue.”

At the beginning of the year, Oregon strengthened its ban on motorist cellphone use by increasing the fine for texting or using a cellphone while driving from $50 to $160, with a maximum fine of $500.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mike Maxwell, vice president and general manager of the Pacific Northwest market, and Erika Markel, listen as students at Beverly Cleary School discuss their documentary, A Message to Congress, that theyre working on for a school project. The documentary addresses the dangers of texting while driving. But the students were concerned that not every state has such a ban on what is a deadly issue.

Maxwell was interviewed by the students for their documentary, and cited Virginia Tech Transportation Institute statistics that show text messaging behind the wheel makes a collision 23 times more likely.

The institute also found that even calls done on a hands-free set — admissible in some anti-cellphone driving legislation — still required drivers to in some way use their cellphone in half of all such calls. Additionally, the act of completing a call, including tasks like reaching for a phone, looking up a contact or dialing a number, makes drivers three times more likely to have an accident.

One study also found that texting while driving took motorists’ eyes off the road an average of 4.6 seconds at a time. At 55 miles per hour, this means a driver travels the equivalent of an entire football field with diverted attention.

AT&T representatives say they want to make texting behind the wheel as unacceptable as drunk driving.

“I would never get in the car with someone I know has been drinking,” Maxwell said. “Why would I get in the car with someone who has a tendency to text and drive? It should be the same thing.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer had similarly strong words on the subject when he was interviewed by White during a question-and-answer session he participated in during last week’s classroom visit.

“I think that anybody who would text and drive ought to lose their license, and they ought to be prosecuted as a felony,” Blumenauer said. “This is insane. Just being on a cellphone is the same as having a couple of drinks. Texting, you might as well be drunk. And it’s got to stop.”

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