Digital distractions while driving can endanger lives

By Caroline Young |

Photos contributed by Leslie Young/ Photo by Phillip C. Sunkel IV

I bent down to kiss my petite mother on her tear-stained cheek before my father swept me up in to one of his firm bear hugs. “Goodbye,” I said, as I hopped into my black Volkswagen Jetta. “I’ll see you in a few months at graduation.”

But we would be reuniting much sooner — in about one hour — at an emergency room.

January 8 was a clear and crisp Saturday in Georgia and the countryside was breathtaking on Highway 16, the 2-lane road connecting my hometown with I-275. Rolling hills and seemingly never-ending emerald green pastures flew by my window. I was eager to leave the little town in Georgia and get back to St. Augustine after a long winter break. I was happy to be alone and cruising down the open road. But 40 minutes into my trip, my phone rang.

At any moment, there are nearly 1 million drivers using cell phones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“I bet she just wants to talk because she is sad,” I thought, glancing down for two to three seconds, deciding to call her back later. But it was too late. When I looked up, the SUV in front of me was coming to a stop. I was still traveling at a steady 60 mph. Not wanting to hit the car and with barely any time to think, I yanked the wheel to the right.

My car careened off the asphalt, demolishing a telephone poll and flipping through the air. reported that using a cell phone while driving is equally comparable to driving with a blood alcohol level of .08, right on the verge of the illegal limit.

“My life is ending now,” I thought to myself amidst the blurry mixture of shock, fear and outright terror.

Once everything became still minutes later, I opened my eyes. I was still buckled in, sitting in the driver’s seat. But I was upside down. Frantically unbuckling my seatbelt, I busted out of the totaled car onto the cold ground. I heard a woman screaming, running toward me. She had watched the scene from her house.

“Get away from your car, darlin’! It’s smokin’,” she yelled in her southern drawl as she got closer. I listened and crawled as far as I could away from the totaled car.

Breathless and finally reaching me, the woman swept me in her arms and told me I would be OK. I was unsure of her words as I began touching my face, leaving my fingers stained with blood droplets.

When I looked up at my car, I thought there was no way this woman was speaking the truth. “Did I hit someone? Are my legs broken? Is my brain OK?” I asked myself what-seemed-like hundreds of questions.

Nearly 80 percent of all crashes were the outcome of a distracted driver, according to

The next thing I knew I was swarmed by about 20 people. Among them were fellow travelers, surrounding residents, and the local sheriff and firemen. As I tried to process the seemingly endless flow of questions from the crowd hovering over me, my mind was like a circus of swirling thoughts. Lying there, I shed tears of fear, embarrassment and gratefulness for my life that I almost lost.

Once I was somewhat calmed by the concerned voices around me, the physical pain set in. The feeling was something I had never felt — an agonizing pain in my right arm began to consume my mind.

According to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), there are an estimated 330,000 injuries resulting from cell phone-related accidents.

After all the CAT scans and the excruciatingly painful x-rays, I fortunately had no brain injuries. I came out with a shattered wrist and a few scratches on my head, and I found large black, brown and yellow bruises on my body. My car was totaled and the insurance went through the roof. I was issued a ticket from the police and my parents were almost as traumatized as me.

But I was extremely lucky.

Roughly 2,600 deaths are caused by cell phone distractions in the U.S. each year, reported by the HFES.

“I’m risking fate doing that,” Clayton Coffman, Flagler alum, said about the driving-while-texting habits he practices on I-95 during his frequent drives to his parent’s house in Jacksonville. “I text quite a bit and it seems like every time I’m in the car, It’s one hand on the wheel and one hand on the phone … looking up and down all the time,” Coffman said.

He had a few close incidents where he ran a red light or almost “fender-bendered” while distracted by his phone.

“I should just turn my phone off, just forget about it for 10, 15 minutes, whatever amount of time… but I just keep it on because I’m like, ‘Oh some text might come through that’s dead urgent and I can’t miss it,” Coffman said. “I can hold off on them … nothing’s ever that urgent.”

According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, there is a “jurisdiction-wide ban” on using a hand-held phone in effect in nine states. They reported texting is banned in 30 states, along with the District of Columbia. And some states, like Georgia, have bans with primary enforcement placed on school bus drivers and drivers under 18 years old for talking while driving.

However, Florida has no ban prohibiting driving while on a cell phone, whether people are texting or talking on a hand-held phone, according to the IIHS.

But there are currently several bills being tossed around in the state legislature, according to

In Orlando, Flagler sophomore Erica Carothers experienced a similar situation to mine.

She was a senior in high school on her way home from cheerleading practice at 10:30 p.m. Approaching a chaotic intersection, Carothers was only traveling at about 30 mph. But one text message from one of her cheer friends is all it took for her gold Impala to create a domino effect as it went crashing into a Volkswagen Beetle and a Volvo.

“I looked up and there was a car, and then that car hit the car in front of it at a stop,” she said. “When the car crashed, it closed up the front hood … the front looked like a pancake … The two front doors wouldn’t open so I had to crawl out to the back doors.”

Luckily Carothers was wearing her seatbelt. “Without [it], they said I probably would have died,” she said.

Carothers came away with “really bad whiplash” and some large bruises on her knees and elbows from hitting the dashboard on impact.

A few seconds to send a text message cost her the time it would take to put on her brakes and avoid hitting the VW bug.

“At first of course I was denying that I was texting,” Carothers said.

But since her father generally sees Carothers as a good driver, he knew something distracted her attention to the other cars.

“He looked at my bill and saw that I was texting right before I called him,” she said. “They obviously knew.”

Carothers is skeptical of other cell phone drivers she travels with and never texts while driving in busy Orlando traffic or on the highway. But she admitted that she gives in to the temptation and still texts at red lights sometimes.

According to the IIHS, a properly-enhanced law prohibiting drivers’ cell phone use can change a person’s behavior on the road. New York was the first state to ban handheld cell phone use while driving in 2001. The institute reported the use rate dropping from 2.3 percent to 1.1 percent of New York drivers after the law was implemented. The rate declined in both males and females under 60 years old and in any type of vehicle.

On the other hand, use rates in Connecticut, where there was no such law, stayed the same.

Regardless of what type of phone someone is using-a handheld or a hands-free phone-they are four times more likely to crash, according to And when he or she texts, dials or e-mails, the chance of crashing rises to 23 times as likely to have an accident.

I never used to think twice about driving down the road, interstate or highway with my phone waiting in my lap, ready to pull my mind off the road. I texted, talked and even surfed the Internet from time to time.

And whenever I drive again, I plan on keeping my phone on silent and far out of my reach. There is nothing pressing enough or urgent enough to risk my own life in a matter of seconds. My hope is for anyone who uses a phone while driving to become more aware of the potentially devastating repercussions.

It could have been anyone calling me at that moment but it happened to be my mother, the one person who would miss me the most. Hugging goodbye in our driveway could have very well been our last moments together.

Like Carothers, the sheriff told my parents if I had not worn my seatbelt, I would have lost my life.

In those two or three seconds of distraction on Highway 16, I put my life in jeopardy. Those two or three seconds of inattention is all it took to ride the fragile line of life and death.

2011 Gargoyle Anthology Award Winner: Silver Award for Feature Writing

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