“How long does it take to read a text?” Robert Clarke asked students in Joe Seaman’s AP Physics Class at Oakcrest High School.
“About four seconds,” student Matt Mazzone said.
That means that a car traveling at 50 mph would go 300 feet, or the length of a football field, while the driver was also reading a text, Clarke said.
“That’s time enough to go into the oncoming traffic lane, swerve back, then lose control,” Clarke said.
April is national “Distracted Driving” month and schools around the area are holding programs to remind students, especially as prom, graduation and summer approach, of the dangers of distracted driving.
Those distractions could include alcohol or drugs. They could also include having a crying baby or rambunctious dog in the car, or a deer running across the road. But the fastest growth area for distractions, especially among those under 30, is cell phones and texting.
No matter the cause, distracted driving caused more than 387,000 injuries and 3,300 deaths in auto crashes in 2011. Fatalities in 2011 rose by more than 300 over 2010 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released this month. Cell phones were a factor in 385 or 12 percent of fatalities, and five percent of injuries.
Among drivers ages 15-19 involved in fatal distracted-driving crashes, 21 percent of drivers were distracted by use of cell phones according to the report. Another 32 percent of the drivers were ages 20-29.
While most accidents are not fatal, a 2012 New Jersey law imposes criminal charges for a driver who causes serious injury or death to another person while using a handheld device. A conviction could mean up to 10 years in prison and up to $150,000 in fines.
Kevin Costello, who teachers drivers education at Oakcrest, got a grant from the Brain Injury Alliance to raise awareness of distracted driving. He brought in Clark, a retired Atlantic City police officer from Port Republic who specializes in accident reconstructions, and Wayne Shelton, a retired state trooper from Upper Township who go to area schools through the South Jersey Traffic Safety Alliance.
Shelton explained how seatbelts and airbags work, and why it’s important to wear them properly, adjusting them to fit.
“An airbag comes out at 200 mph” he said. “It’s designed to coordinate with the seatbelt, which slows you down.”
Since this was an AP physics class, Clarke got to show off his science and math skills, even testing the students on a few accident-related problems. He used traffic diagrams from local accidents to emphasize to students that accidents can happen to them or someone they know.
“Every accident is preventible,” he said. “Every time I drive by one of those roadside memorials I wonder how it happened, and why.”
Clarke showed students how he reconstructs a crash, and how “black boxes” in cars can help track the last 25 seconds of a car’s activity before the crash. The data can show changes in speed, and if the driver used the brakes.
Seaman said the lesson fit in perfectly with what he is teaching and offers real-life examples of how physics applies to life.
Clarke said he likes that his message and Shelton’s show both how to drive more safely, and what can happen if you don’t.
“Texting is the really hot topic,” Shelton said.