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Local teens given sobering truth about distracted driving

June 6, 2012

Martha Tessmer, standing before a stage containing her late son, Donovan’s letter jacket and photo, riveted the Lone Pine High School student body during an IMPACT Teen Drivers assembly. On Donovan’s “angel day,” July 8, family and friends will break the seal on a time capsule, sealed a year ago, to reveal “items that show how he affected life, what he represented.” Photo by Marilyn Blake Philip

When Bishop California Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Dennis Cleland asked the Lone Pine High School student body IMPACT Teen Drivers assembly audience, “What is lethal,” they called out answers like: driving under the influence, using a cell phone, texting, driving with both ear phones in, drugs, no seat belts and even eating. Cleland commented on that last one. “Yes, that’s the deadliest restaurant.”
He passed the baton to Martha Tessmer at the June 1 assembly. Martha Tessmer speaks on behalf of IMPACT, a nonprofit co-founded by the California Association of Highway Patrolmen in 2007.
Tessmer acknowledged the contributing factors to teen death listed but what about “lip gloss and lattes?” As it turns out, distractions and recklessness while driving are the main factors contributing to the number one causes of teen deaths in the U.S: car crashes. According to her Power Point presentation, five teens die of animal attacks, 833 as a result of poisoning, 1,613 from suicide, 1,655 of disease, 2,760 are murdered but 4,828 die in car crashes annually.
Teens between the ages of 15 to 19 are most “likely to die of car crashes than any other cause of death (and) if you’re the one choosing to be a reckless driver, you could be the one who kills your best friend.”
Tessmer had them at hello; students were riveted as she listed common teen driving scenarios: giving younger siblings a lift, doing errands, going on a date, the freedom of a solo drive and just hanging out with friends. Tessmer didn’t harp on drugs or alcohol; instead she talked about the poor choices that lead teens to reckless and/or distracted driving behaviors: changing tracks on an iPod, checking Facebook, picking something up off the floor of the car, reading a text, checking their appearance in the rearview mirror and showing off for friends.
Those poor choices have consequences, said Tessmer, pulling no punches. “If you choose to show off for friends, you are choosing to be a reckless driver,” Tessmer said. “‘Sorry, I killed my little sister, but I had to make sure my hat was tilted just the right way …’ Or, ‘I had to make sure my make up was right.’ ‘I had to make that five-second text message (and) I killed your child.’ Could you say that to your parents?” The student body was deathly quiet.
Tessmer segued to a video with a cast of “real people” about an actual teen driving fatality. “Anytime you have to take your eyes off of the road for any reason, that’s distracted driving,” said the narrator, and recklessness is just plain acting like “an idiot” behind the wheel.
A case in point was a group of teens driving one night after a movie. “We were just going home, speed wasn’t really a factor,” said the driver – still she was driving fast. Music was blasting. Three boys were wrestling in the backseat, over a bag of chips and a Monster energy drink. The teens called for greater speed then teased, “Can’t you keep the car going straight?”
The driver kicked it up a notch. “Like this, like this,” she said playfully jerking the wheel. Suddenly, there was a tree dead ahead. The car bounced off of it, ejected some of its passengers and came to an end-of-the-line halt, wrapped around a second tree. “I saw (Donovan) laying in his own blood,“ recalls one teen. “We were just having fun and in a split second, he was dead.” Another boy ended up paralyzed for life.
No one had been high or intoxicated, or even in-text-ticated, a turn of phrase that highlights the inebriating affect of texting while driving. Tearful testimonials ensued then the video ended on a sober note. “What is lethal to teens is bad driving habits – something that can be changed.”
The driver was Donovan’s girlfriend. Popular Donovan was a good student. He was to be the focus of football scouts the next day. Colleges were courting him.
Donovan was Tessmer’s 16-year-old son. That accident was the driver’s “first traffic violation,” said Tessmer, and she was an excellent driver. Normally.
Driver or passenger, every teen makes choices when they get into a car, said Tessmer. “Do you say to yourself, ‘I’m gonna make sure I end someone’s life tonight?’” she asked. No, but it’s easy, she explained, for teens to think they “are invincible,” then become careless. “Could you go to your best friends and put two fingers to the side of their necks to check for their pulse” and not find one? Donovan’s best friend had to do that.
“We sent him away (earlier that evening) with a hug and a kiss and brought him home in an urn,” said Tessmer, who paused to scan the auditorium audience. “Are you wiling to make decisions that will do that to your family?”
Passengers make driving choices, too, said Tessmer. They can use seat belts, ask the driver to slow down and/or turn down the music and they can ask to be let out of the car if the driver doesn’t comply.
Next, Tessmer used a “probability wheel” which illustrates the chances of getting into a traffic accident based on compounding factors such as number of passengers, driving conditions and distracting activities. For example, a teen driver with three passengers driving during the day has a 282 percent chance of crashing. Night driving careens it up to 299 percent. Now, adjust the car stereo and the probability speeds up to 599 percent. Read a text message and the probability accelerates to 882 percent. If the driver reaches for an object on the floor the likelihood skyrockets to 1,085 percent. Or, instead, up the ante by texting and the probability goes through the roof – 1,485 percent. (By the way, Cleland said that it’s illegal for anyone 16 years old and younger to use a cell phone, even hands-free, while driving.)
“Look around at your passengers,” Tessmer said. “Is what you are doing, or aren’t doing, worth the life of anyone in your car? I should be attending my son’s college graduation (right now), not travelling the state talking about his death.” But Tessmer stays busy doing just that, on a mission to stave off the number one killer of teens.
Cleland stays busy, too, bringing his Smart Start prevention program to local schools. “It’s never too early to get them to start thinking about making right choices,” said Cleland. He covers drunk driving, calling and texting – and physics – “weight times speed equals force,” explained Cleland. Among the devices he uses to bring the message home is footage of graphic real-life collision scenes.
Asked what it’s like to respond to such scenes for real, the veteran officer simply shook his head, took a step back, then murmured, “It isn’t pretty.” After a moment, Cleland added, “Those situations are just ones you hope no one ever has to experience.” But people do have to experience them, 4,829 times a year.
Tessmer summed it up. “My goal is to leave behind tools, thoughtful suggestions of action (teens) can take to prevent the preventable death from car crashes.”
For more information about booking IMPACT, Smart Start, etc., contact Cleland at Bishop California Highway Patrol, (760) 872-5960. The public is also invited to stop by at 469 S. Man St. The websites ImpactTeenDrivers.org, whatdoyouconsiderlethal.com and RULethal.com were also referenced at the assembly.

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