Even those not fluent in French could guess the young man is using some colourful language.
As another torrent leaves his mouth, he raises his hands to stifle a nervous chuckle. He's behind the wheel of a car, about to take a driving lesson with a Belgian driving instructor. He has just been told about a "new law" that requires all Belgian drivers to be able to send a text message, correctly spelled and punctuated, while driving. The driving instructor, who has trained as an actor in the past, tells the kid, "Look, I didn't invent this." The instructor then hands over what he says is a government document detailing the new regulations. It must look authentic, because the student believes that this will, eventually, be a part of his final driving exam.
"Plenty of people will crash," the student tells the instructor. They both look out over a closed driving course dotted with orange traffic cones. And then the lesson begins.
This isn't a scene from some new Belgian surrealist film. It's from an educational video made by an organization called Responsible Young Drivers (RYD). And the point is simple: to teach young drivers about the dangers of sending text messages while driving. "Worldwide, vehicle crashes are the biggest cause of mortality of youngsters between 15 and 24 years of age," says Axel Druart, RYD's European Project Director. "We have to do something about it."
"It's weird for us," he continues. "RYD has been fighting against impaired driving (under the influence of alcohol and drugs) for years, but now, with new technologies, the statistics show that distractions cause one quarter of all vehicle crashes."
Cell phone use, Druart says, is high on the list of distractions, especially among young people who are constantly on their phones, checking messages and surfing the internet. "When those young people get in a car, they don't think, 'Oh, I'm driving. I better not check my text messages.' Their attitude is more like, 'Oh, I have a message, I better check that.'"
Statistics confirm that distracted driving is a real problem. In the US, Consumer Reports recently released a survey in which 30% of respondents (young people aged 16 to 21) admitted to texting while driving in the past month. Moreover, 71% of them said they had seen a peer do so. On the US government's Distracted Driving website, it says that more than 16% of all teens involved in fatal crashes in 2009 were reported to have been distracted. And according to a Pew survey from that same year, 40% of American teens say they have been in a car when a driver used a cell phone in a way that put them in danger.
And it's hardly just an American problem. The European Commission research on distracted driving noted: "Many young drivers admit to the largely illegal activity of texting while driving. Text messaging has a detrimental effect on safety-critical driving tasks such as lane-keeping, hazard detection, and the detection and appropriate response to traffic signs."
So, starting a few years ago, RYD and some of its partner organizations in Europe started working on a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of driving while distracted, especially while text messaging. The first thing they did was start using a game called "Distract-A-Match," in which young people had to complete a series of exercises in matching shapes and colors. But, they had to do this while sending a text message. To make it even more difficult, they were then asked to do it with a special pair of goggles that emulate various levels of inebriation.