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Safety: WHS students become part of solution to distracted driving

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

At the end of the morning there were two less cellphones to distract student drivers. They were confiscated by staff at Waccamaw High during a program to raise awareness of distracted driving.

They were only two out of about 800 students who saw, but they underscored the difficulty of getting people of any age to put aside their phones for even a short time and the challenge of tailoring a message for teens that is more compelling than the one of the small screen in their hand.

George Jebaily pleads guilty to succumbing to the same temptations. The Florence attorney has delivered the distracted driving program to about a dozen groups. It’s sponsored by the Casey Feldman Foundation, started by the parents of a 21-year-old New Jersey woman who was killed by a distracted driver while in a crosswalk in 2009. That driver was 59.

“It’s not just a teen problem,” Jebaily said. “I’m saying it’s an all-of-us problem.”

And it’s not just a cellphone problem. There were knowing murmurs in the WHS auditorium when photos flashed on the screen of girls putting on makeup or drivers making changes to their music players.

The foundation created the program, EndDD, that Jebaily delivers. He adds stories from his 30-year career, like the judge’s remark to the woman who said she looked before she pulled out in front of an on-coming car: “You don’t have a duty to look; you have a duty to see.”

And he told the Waccamaw High students the issue of distraction is compounded in a tourist area. “You have a lot of crashes down here at the beach because you have people trying to figure out where they are going,” Jebaily said.

The program includes video of drivers and victims that is emotional, but not shocking. It returns to the message that students can take control of their safety and can be the teachers to parents and siblings. “We all need to work together to figure out how to be safer,” Jebaily tells them.

Sending text messages while driving is the most serious distraction because it affects the hand, the eyes and the brain. It’s estimated that a text message consumes 5 seconds of a driver’s attention, enough for his vehicle to travel 100 yards at 50 miles an hour.

Another video features the sister of a woman whose truck flipped while she was reading a text message. The sister sent the message: “Yeah.” “That’s what killed her,” she says.

That also sent a wave of murmurs through the auditorium. The whole school saw the program, with freshmen and sophomores at one session. The juniors and seniors followed. Every month there are enough deaths from distracted driving to empty a room like that, Jebaily said, about 3,700 annually.

At the end of school, students received a checklist of steps they can take to prevent distracted driving. They were asked to take them home and share them with family, then sign them.

“I know I’m going to get a lecture,” said Barbara O’Neill, a science teacher whose son Michael is a sophomore. “I’m getting a lecture on the way home today.”

Camlin Cusick, a freshman, headed out of the auditorium with an iPhone in one hand. “It was good,” she said. And she added that she wasn’t just being polite.

“I never really thought about it before,” she said.

The program was set up by WAVE, the parent-teacher-student association at the school. Between sessions, Jebaily and his colleague, Brian Yost, who helped with the program, asked for a critique from the WAVE members. They agreed the program was effective, but said the amount of information was sometimes unwieldy.

“They need the information fast, in and out,” said Laura Hutto, the group’s president. She said the accident scenarios that the school and emergency responders create before the prom has an impact because it’s visual.

“The more I do this, the more I understand the attention span of teens,” Yost said. “This stuff is so important, it can be a matter of life and death.”

“It’s a tough balancing act,” Jebaily said.

The distracted driving presentation is available to schools and other groups. For information, contact Jebaily at gjebaily@jebailylaw.com

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