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OMW: Crash course

3/28/2013

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Some eighth-graders aren't yet old enough to have a driver's license. But most 13- and 14-year-olds probably can spell relatively well.

That's the scary part.

With their eyes on their cellphones, and trying to correctly send a text message, eighth-graders at Hays Middle School made a shambles of a driving course in their parking lot Wednesday afternoon.

"That was hard," Hannah Burns said as she climbed out of a golf cart after hitting several plastic cones and even running right over a sign.

"I kept trying to look up to see where I was going," Burns said.

"But Mr. Adams kept yelling at me, and I was (distracted)," eighth-grader Cameron Jensen said.

Kellen Adams and other HMS teachers and coaches rode with students in the golf carts, instructing them on what to put on text messages that were sent to either Jacque Beckman from Nex-Tech or Dorothy Stieben from Nex-Tech Wireless.

Showing how dangerous it is to drive while being distracted -- whether from texting or by someone in the vehicle yelling at you -- is exactly what Beckman is hoping to get across to people of all ages.

Beckman, youth services/community development coordinator for Nex-Tech out of the Lenora office, said her company began developing a program about the dangers of texting while driving approximately two years ago and started promoting it in the fall and put it into practice recently.

While "drinking while driving kills" used to be the catch phrase, these days it's "DWD" -- or driving while distracted.

Surrounded by signs stating "DWD kills ... W8T2TXT," Beckman told the students "texting while driving is as dangerous as driving while tired or intoxicated."

For those not into texting, that message reads, "Driving while distracted kills ... wait to text."

Beckman began sending out emails to numerous schools and organizations last fall, offering to come on site for demonstrations.

"I immediately started getting back responses to the email," Beckman said.

One of those who responded quickly was Bruce Rupp, who teaches at HMS and has been coordinator of driver's education for Hays USD 489 for 18 years. A lot of students take driver's ed after their eighth-grade year, so that's why he targeted the eighth-graders for the demonstration.

"I think this is a great message for the kids," Rupp said. "And it's an opportunity to get some hands-on training."

His students got that -- and then some.

Some drivers just weren't off course Wednesday. They ran over signs and hit pillows representing humans jumping out in front of their vehicle.

Morgan Budig hit the back of a cart sitting at a stop sign because she was looking down at her phone.

Zaira Azpilcueta even ran into and over the large Nex-Tech sign, leaving it in a heap in the middle of the course.

And that was while driving a golf cart at less than 10 miles per hour.

"That was fun today," Beckman told the students afterward. "But what if that would have been a car? What if those (pillows) would have been people?"

Beckman then told the students another sobering fact.

"Most of the text messages we got today were almost perfect," she told the students. "You were worrying more about getting the text message right than your driving."

Beckman, who handed out pamphlets and sheets with driving tips, stressed it's not only youngsters who text while driving but adults as well.

"It's a prevalent problem, and not just with students," Burns said. "We're hoping we can build awareness."

Some of the reasons people text while driving, Beckman said, are: I feel like I'm a good texter. This one time. It'll only take a second. It'll never happen to me.

Beckman showed a video of several fatal accidents that occurred because the driver was texting.

"Your life, and others," she said, "are more important than any message. No call, no text, no message is worth that."

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A "texting while driving" program sponsored by Nex-Tech is available for schools and other organizations, including adults, by calling Jacque Beckman, youth services/community development coordinator, in the Lenora office at (877) 567-7872, Ext. 1170.