Aided by a car equipped with virtual reality software to hammer the point home, Georgia Southern University launched an anti-texting and driving campaign Wednesday at the school’s outdoor rotunda.
The kick-off event signaled the beginning of a “txtl8r” (text later) campaign aimed at young drivers on the school’s campus and around the state. Through a series of radio and television announcements, and images located around campus, Georgia Southern is hoping to increase awareness of the potentially deadly activity.
“The majority of our students fall into the age group most likely to be killed by texting and driving,” said Christian Flathman, Director of Marketing and Communications for Georgia Southern. “We are hoping the campaign will cause our students and thousands of other drivers in our state and around the country to think twice before engaging in this risky behavior.”
“We believe that if we can get our 20,000 drivers to stop texting and driving, then the roads will be safer for everyone,” he said.
It was not exactly a Sunday drive for students taking a turn behind the wheel of a simulation vehicle on site for Wednesday’s announcement.
Dangers associated with illegal activity were made all too evident as, one after another, texting drivers fought to maintain proper lanes, swerved into oncoming traffic and ended the virtual lives of innocent, crossing pedestrians.
“You really aren’t looking at the road at all,” said junior Erin Hendrix. “You’re focused on your phone. I was trying to glance at the phone, thinking I was fine, but hit someone just that fast. You never know what could happen.”
In about two minutes behind the wheel, Hendrix built-up quite the rap sheet.
“I was thinking that I am a texting and driving pro, so this should be nothing,” she said. “But I killed someone in the simulator. I was speeding, swerving, and driving on the incorrect side of the road altogether; I failed to stop and committed vehicular manslaughter, so I was arrested.”
On hand for the event were Bulloch County, Statesboro and Georgia Southern police officers to discuss hazards associated with texting and penalties for being caught.
So too was Georgia Southern biology professor Dr. Lorne Wolfe, who after having a student miss class due to a texting and driving-related fatality, decided to partner with the university’s Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management and the Office of Marketing and Communications to develop the campaign.
“Over the years I have had a number of students who — whether themselves, their friends or family — have been involved in accidents and injured or killed,” said Wolfe. “One morning, before I taught a class, I had a student email me that he was not coming to class because his brother had been killed the night before.”
“That really resonated with me,” he said. “When I went to give my lecture, I found it difficult to speak about the topic I was supposed to lecture on. So I told the students: ‘One of your classmates is not here today because of distracted driving. What are we going to do about it?’”
According to Wolfe, the campaign hopes to appeal to, and reach, a wide range of students.
“This campaign we came up with is effective, I think, because it integrates marketing with athletics and academics,” he said. “We have students, student-athletes, administrators and faculty and staff all giving the same message. It has resonated because of this. There is a buzz around campus.”
Part of that “buzz” has been created by life-sized cardboard cutouts of Georgia Southern President Brooks Keel, Georgia Southern Eagles Football coach Jeff Monken and Wolfe urging students to wait until after trips to text, he said.
Keel and Monken have also recorded public service announcements that are being distributed to television and radio stations throughout the state, according to Flathman.
“We understand that there is an imminent danger there when students decide to do other things instead of focusing on the road,” said Monken. “When you are distracted, you are going to become a dangerous driver.”
“It is a temptation for everyone to pick up the phone [when driving],” he said. “Accidents happen so quickly and it concerns me about our young people.”
The ‘txtl8r’ campaign is being undertaken with the assistance of a Department of Transportation Highway Safety Grant, said Flathman. According to a university press release, “statistics by the U.S. Department of Transportations show that in 2009 distracted driving — which includes texting — was a factor in nearly 5,500 traffic deaths and a half million injuries.”
Persons under the age of 20 are most likely to be killed or injured, according to the report; the group between the ages of 20 and 29 is second.
“Because we’re young we think it cannot or won’t happen to us. But it can. We are not promised tomorrow,” said Carla Metts, a sophomore and former student of Wolfe. “[Texting and driving] is definitely a habit. A lot of times, [students] just don’t pay attention. But the messages are usually something you could easily wait to respond to later.”
Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454.