Texting and driving: The impossible test
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(Copyright: SPL)
A novel experiment aims to make young people face up to the dangers of text messaging whilst driving.

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."

‘Deadly weapon’

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.

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."

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