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Howard 'crash' course for students focuses on distracted driving

Distracted driving means more than just texting while behind the wheel. It can mean buckling a seat belt while the car is in motion, brushing one's hair or even changing radio stations.

Those were some of the lessons learned by about 20 high school students Tuesday night, Nov. 27, at a Distracted Driving Presentation put on by students from Voices for Change at the Glenwood Branch Library.

"This is about safety, and it's a cultural issue," said Meg Mekelburg, youth outreach coordinator for Voices for Change. "To get young people to think about it, it's easier to change perceptions before they actually become a driver."

Students participated in Distracted-Driving Jeopardy, answering questions about what constitutes distracted driving, and learned some surprising things — for example, texting while driving limits a person's response time to that of a 70-year-old.

Students also took part in a video game exercise: They played Mario Kart on a Wii, and texted while trying to operate the steering-wheel control.

When the game began, one student's video game car immediately careened off the road. Within four minutes, the four students playing the game crashed their cars more than 20 times, sometimes running into walls, driving in the opposite direction or simply driving off a cliff.

Daryl Bentivenga, of Marriottsville, brought her son, Mike, to the presentation. Mike, 16, will soon take the test for his learner's permit.

"I'm not necessarily worried about him, but about others on the road," she said. "It's important for him to be aware of (distracted drivers) ... This is a fun way to learn about a serious issue."

Mike, a junior at Marriotts Ridge High School, said it was interesting to learn how much could be described as distracted driving and added that he would be more careful when he got his license.

After the presentation and the video games, students reviewed how to avoid distracted driving due to phone use: Turn off the phone entirely; pull over to the side of the road to use the phone; or let someone else in the car respond to texts or calls.

Students also signed a pledge with the 3D Project — an anti-distracted driving program sponsored by WBAL-TV and the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Voices for Change is a group of about 40 students sponsored by the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, the Columbia Association, the Howard County Public School System, the Howard County Library System, and the Howard County Department of Citizen Services Office of Children's Services. According to its mission statement, the group "empowers young people to take action and create positive change in Howard County." This year, distracted driving is one of the issues the students chose to focus on.

Collin Sullivan, 15, a sophomore at Long Reach High School, is the driving force behind the anti-distracted driving initiative, Mekelburg said. Collin said distracted driving was becoming more of a problem in Howard County, and he knew several people who had been affected by its negative consequences.

"We need to bring as much attention to this as we can," Collin said. "It's a mindless thing to do, but it's very deadly and it has many consequences behind it — even if you aren't directly affected by it."

Sarah Pomerantz, 15, a sophomore at Oakland Mills High School, joined Collin as a presenter at the event. She said she tries to remind people in her life to drive without distractions.

"The scariest part is when someone isn't looking at the road," she said.

John Jewitt, a teen curriculum coordinator for the library system, said the fact that the presentation was given by students, to students, made it all the more valuable.

"It's the same message, but it's taking a different path," he said. "Hearing the information from adults, that's one thing, but to hear it from students their own age, that's important."

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