But RYD wanted to take its campaign to the next level. "We were talking to volunteers and youngsters about it," says Axel Druart, "and they said, 'Why don't you make the texting an exercise during an actual driving test?'"
Druart found a Belgian driving school willing to try it, and an instructor willing to play along. One day in late March, they set up some hidden webcams around the closed road course, and inside the instruction car. The idea was to surreptitiously film the students as they tried to text and drive.The students had no idea what was going on. "They believed it. I mean, everyone's texting anyway," says Druart. "And besides," he adds with a laugh, "anything can happen in Belgium."
The resulting video is funny, poignant and powerful. Most of the students try their hardest to send the text messages given to them by the instructor; my personal favourites are "I will get fries," (very Belgian) and "I will be late tonight." At the same time they must avoid hitting traffic cones, and even go through a slalom-type course.
The result includes plenty of braking and swerving, accompanied by swearing and tears. Mangled orange cones litter the course. "Imagine that's a child," the instructor tells one student, who is close to weeping. To keep it real, the instructor spends his time not just grabbing the wheel to avoid road hazards, but also correcting the students' spelling. "Look, you spelled school wrong," he quips in one portion of the video.
By the end, all of the students are frustrated and a bit shaken. "It's impossible!" screams one young woman. The young man I mentioned earlier tells the instructor, at the end, "People will die. If this becomes law, I'll stop driving." At the end of the session, the participants were told the law was not real. They also did not have to pay for the lesson.
The video has now been viewed on YouTube more than 1.2 million times. Axel Druart says RYD has fielded phone calls and emails about the video from across Europe, countries in Africa, Canada, Australia, and China.
When RYD shows the video to kids in schools, Druart says, it is very effective. I ask him if he thinks RYD's approach is better than some of the other videos out there, which take, a more graphic approach to the subject of texting and driving. "We wanted to remain positive," Druart tells me. "We don't want to moralize. There are no crashes in the video. No blood. But we wanted people to realize the danger by themselves, and to experience it themselves. That's why we came up with this test."
Druart says RYD was also insistent on not banning anything. "When you forbid things, people (especially young people) want to do them even more."
And RYD isn't letting up. Already, Druart says, the organization is trying to come up with an awareness campaign that goes beyond just text messaging. Smartphones and tablets, many constantly hooked into 3G connections, are the next big issues, according to Druart.
"Look at the iPad," Druart says. "We think it's portable, so we can take it anywhere. It's very easy to put it on your passenger seat, or on your lap, or even on the wheel. But you can't. You have to take responsibility."
"When you're in a car," he says, "It's like you have a weapon in your hand."