COLUMBIA — One by one, the drivers rolled through traffic lights, swerved into other vehicles and far surpassed the speed limit.
It was a simulation meant to teach students the consequences of texting and driving and to prompt a pledge never to do it again.
The event, organized by AT&T and held at Hickman High School on Wednesday, was part of the company's "It Can Wait" campaign, encouraging people to stop driving while distracted. The campaign began this year and was launched nationwide Wednesday.
Mayor Bob McDavid signed a proclamation for the city, making Columbia one of 30 communities in Missouri pledging to discourage teens from texting and driving.
"For young drivers, they should be focusing on driving, especially since they have less experience," Hickman Assistant Principal Doug Mirts said.
Distracted driving has contributed to a rising number of driving fatalities, and texting has been singled out as particularly dangerous.
An American Journal of Public Health study found the number of distracted driving fatalities increased 28 percent between 2005 and 2008.
Driver fatalities for 16- and 17-year-olds increased by 11 percent between the first half of 2010 and the first half of 2011, according to a 2011 study by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Missouri was among the states with the highest number of fatalities in this demographic.
Missouri has a law prohibiting anyone age 21 and under from texting while driving, but law enforcement has said that the ban can be difficult to enforce.
"When I was growing up, playing with the radio or fumbling for a CD was the biggest distraction," said Hickman outreach counselor Isaiah Cummings, who helped organize Wednesday's event. "I couldn't imagine texting while driving."
Mirts said the rise of gadgets like GPS devices, phones and radios are "good and fine, but driving should be your priority. "
"It's hard enough to (text) while sitting in my chair, but the younger demographic is texting, tweeting, and Facebooking," he said.
Campaigns like "It Can Wait" target schools with that reality in mind.
"We're trying to get a jump on changing behavior," Craig Felzien, AT&T regional manager, said. The campaign also involves showing students a 10-minute documentary, "The Last Text," which was playing on the wall in the Hickman commons area where the event was held. Students trickled in to do the simulation and watch the film.
Felzien said approximately 800 of the nearly 2,000 students agreed to the pledge by taking a car window sticker and some signed pledges, but none were available for interviews.
AT&T is not the only telecom pairing its name with an anti-texting and driving effort. Sprint sponsors Oprah Winfrey's "No Phone Zone," Verizon Wireless coordinates their own regional programs and many companies are creating mobile apps to discourage phone use while driving. Apps include AT&T's Drive Mode, Textecution and Drive Safe.ly, among others. Many are focused on teen drivers.
"You're talking about a split second in which lives can be changed," Cummings said. "We are trying to get students to think twice about if it is worth injuring yourself or a friend."
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