Students campaign to end distracted driving

Cell phones are just about as common as backpacks these days when it comes to high school accessories. 

Spend some time after the last bell rings at most high schools and you’ll see the devices — usually forbidden during class time — come out in force. Just after 3 p.m. on a recent Monday at DeLaSalle High School, the usual post-class chatter was accompanied by teens glued to screens, thumbs hard at work on texts to friends. 

Libby Silverman, 17, a senior at DeLa

Salle who lives in East Calhoun, has a cell phone like everyone else. But there’s one place in which she hardly acknowledges its existence. She has pledged to stay off the phone while driving and is encouraging her classmates and others to do the same.

“I just want to get the point across that ever since I was a young child I was always taught never to get in a car with a drunk driver. This is just as bad,” Silverman said. 

Silverman is working with fellow seniors Isaac Walsh and Maureen Boyce on a campaign to end distracted driving, particularly involving cell phone use. A meeting with state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) last spring during Silverman’s participation in a page program prompted the effort.

Hornstein, a staunch proponent of a total ban on motorist cell-phone use, in 2008 authored a bill banning texting while driving and plans to push for further restrictions during the next legislative session. He has backed Silverman’s campaign, hoping it will boost awareness of the issue and influence policy makers. 

For drivers under age 18, any use of hand-held or hands-free phones while behind the wheel is illegal, but it still happens. Both Silverman and Walsh said they’ve witnessed it on multiple occasions and have been in some scary situations. Their campaign hasn’t been popular with everyone, including some of their friends, they said, but they’ve found ample support. 

So far, they’ve marketed their effort through word-of-mouth and a Facebook group called Students for Focused Driving, which has more than 200 members. Silverman and Walsh are also developing a website, which they hope to launch in November. They’re planning to host an event for students around the same time that would involve Hornstein, representatives from AAA and other safe-driving advocacy organizations, and teachers.  

DeLaSalle math teacher Kathy Canepa is among those offering support. She said cell-phone use is rampant among students and more needs to be done to communicate the dangers of using the devices while driving. She was glad to see students taking the lead on the issue.  

“Both [Silverman and Walsh] are very serious students anyway, but for a high school student who generally doesn’t think seriously about long-term and isn’t really thinking about jumping on an important cause like this, yeah they impressed me very much,” Canepa said. 

Silverman’s mom, Jan Scott, was also impressed. Scott said if her phone rings when she’s driving, her daughter will grab it and answer it for her. The whole family makes a point of putting cell phones away in the car and Scott tries not to call anyone if she knows they’re driving somewhere, just to eliminate the temptation. 

She said Silverman was always interested in the issue, but Hornstein gave her a way to get involved at another level.

“I’m excited that he’s doing something about it, trying to, and that she can be part of it because she’s just really excited about it and it’s good for her to see how everything works,” Scott said. 

Each year in Minnesota, distracted or inattentive driving is a factor in one in four crashes, causing at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.  

Minnesota doesn’t completely ban drivers from using cell phones, but it has restricted the practice in the following ways: 

It is illegal for drivers under age 18 to use a cell phone while driving, unless the phone is used to call 911 in an emergency. The law applies to both hand-held and hands-free devices.

It is illegal for drivers of all ages to compose or read text messages and e-mails, or access the Internet while the vehicle is moving or in traffic. 

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]