In the theater at Poland Regional High School, Owen Smith Jr. shared statistics, listened to students’ stories and played a short documentary of teens disabled and dead from texting while driving. Afterward, more than 50 seniors signed a pledge never to text and drive.
Two days later and 25 miles up the road in West Paris, a crash killed two young people. The teen driver reportedly had been texting and drinking.
“I saw that and I just got a big lump in my stomach,” said Smith, who works in external affairs for AT&T. “You wonder what would happen had we been in the Oxford Hills doing this. Would that have prevented this?”
It’s been illegal to text and drive in Maine since September. Drivers have gotten 48 citations, according to Violations Bureau records, nearly half of those written by two officers on opposite ends of the state.
Stats aren’t kept on texting-related accidents, but police say it’s a worry, and a reality.
“I think it’s one of the most significant dangers that are out there on the road,” said Lt. Walter Grzyb, head of the Maine State Police troop in Gray where two troopers had been working the West Paris crash full time. “For years, it’s been drunk driving. I think texting while driving is becoming just as serious an issue — and we’ll see what happens; it may be more.”
The Jan. 7 crash that killed Rebecca Mason, 16, of West Paris and Logan Dam, 19, of Norway remains under investigation. In its aftermath, officials said driver Kristina Lowe, 18, of West Paris and a passenger, Jacob Skaff, 22, of Paris left the scene, Lowe badly injured and returning to a party the four had just left.
Grzyb hopes to wrap up that investigation soon and forward results to the Oxford County District Attorney's Office.
“It’s going to be important that we understand all the dynamics of the things that were going on before the accident and after,” he said. “That will tell us a lot about what was going on that night and what the appropriate charges are going to be.”
He declined to discuss whether messages were being sent, received or both from Lowe’s cellphone before the crash, other than to say, “We still believe that (texting) has some involvement in it.”
Nationally, AT&T, the country’s second-largest cellphone carrier, estimates 200,000 accidents a year are blamed on texting and driving, Smith said.
An Auburn native, Smith has been to eight to 10 schools in Maine, most in Cumberland County, as part of AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign. He encourages teens to think about leaving phones in the glove box to avoid temptation and parents to not send texts if they know their teen is on the road.
“I ask everybody in the audience to close their eyes for five seconds,” Smith said. “They open them back up and I say that’s the average time it takes to send or receive and read a text message. At 55 mph, you’ve just closed your eyes for the length of a football field.”
Catching drivers in Maine
In Maine, a texting while driving citation triggers a $100 fine and two demerit points on a license.
Saco police officer Steve Garrison has written nine citations. Trooper Michael Johnston out of the Orono state police barracks has written eight.
Johnston covers the turnpike between Newport and Old Town every other week in an unmarked patrol car.
It’s a tough offense to ticket, he said.
Johnston will look over as he’s passing a car, or one’s passing him, and sometimes “catch them in the act.” Off the interstate, he watches drivers at intersections.
“I see vehicles around me, either to my left or right or across from me, they think that because they’re not in motion it’s acceptable to send or receive a text, when it’s not,” he said. “The statute says 'operating'; operating has a different connotation than driving.”
After a stop, most admit it when he asks, "Were you texting?" While drivers don’t have to show their phones, he hasn’t had anyone say no.
However, he said, what can be telltale signs of texting — erratic driving, weaving, slowing down and speeding up — can also look like drunk driving, falling asleep at the wheel or a medical issue coming up on a vehicle from behind.
Only one of Johnston’s tickets came after a crash. That driver didn’t see the car stopped in front of her. She was busy texting.
Garrison frequently patrols Routes 1 and 112 in Saco.
"There was one recently where this lady and her husband were following a pickup truck up Route 1 that was just swerving all over the road and I was able to find it, actually see the operator texting," Garrison said.
Offenders seem to split pretty evenly between men and women, he said, from teens to people in their mid-30s.
"I stopped one driver who I saw drive by me while I was stopped in traffic using what appeared to be a Palm Pilot, which I didn't think people had anymore," Garrison said. "He's got the stylus and he's going all over the screen, while he was driving, wasn't even holding onto the steering wheel. It turned out that he was a salesman and he was in the process of canceling one order using that device and making another order."
Between Sept. 12 and Jan. 10, Maine police wrote 10,633 tickets for speeding and 635 tickets for drivers not wearing seat belts. In that same period, 31 officers wrote 48 citations for texting while driving, with one ticket each in Lewiston, Auburn and Paris.
Grzyb called that figure low.
“I think we certainly need to do a better job enforcing it," he said. "It’ll take time to figure out how to best do that. There’s probably also — not right, wrong or indifferent — there’s probably a grace period that naturally gets built into any new law.”
The state doesn’t track the number of warnings police issue.
“When you talk about texting, everybody knows how dangerous it is," Grzyb said. "Most everybody you talk to, ‘I know, I know, I know,’ but there’s usually the caveat, ‘but I still do it.’”
“We see accidents, crashes now, we really can’t explain,” he said. “Crashes that are head-on crashes on straight roads. Sometimes we learn that it is texting; sometimes there’s no real evidence of it, but I suspect that is the cause of some of them.”
'Did I listen? Not really'
Jo-Anne Teacutter lives in Greene and owns the South of the Border restaurant in Lewiston. She’s on the road for an hour or two every day between the commute and errands, and estimates one in three drivers aren’t looking up.
She's seen women applying makeup. She once passed a driver balancing a Kindle on her steering wheel. And of course, she's seen texting.
Teacutter’s 15-year-old daughter, on her phone “all the time,” is taking driver's ed soon. The idea, Teacutter said, scares her to death.
“I think they need to hear about things happening with other kids,” she said. “You just hope for the best.”
Zac Stearn, a senior at Hall-Dale High School in Hallowell, started the Distracted Driving Awareness Program with Matt Ingalls this fall as a senior project based on the tenet that teens need to hear the message to not text and drive from other teens. In addition to Hall-Dale, they plan to start with schools in Monmouth and Maranacook, then branch out.
“Having a parent tell you not to text and drive is great,” Stearn said. “However, I’ll admit I have texted and driven, and my parents have told me (not to) from the very get-go. Did I listen? Not really.”
He was texting behind the wheel one day when a friend grabbed the phone out of his hand. At first it made him angry, then it made him think. “Kids learn better from peers,” Stearn said.
Smith said 850 billion texts were sent on AT&T's network last year. He expects that to go up in 2012. He expects, too, to visit more Maine high schools with his presentation.
“We realize it’s our products and services — along with Verizon and anybody else who is in the business — that are part of the problem,” he said. “We feel partly responsible to go out there and educate people on the hazards and push for laws.”
Katrina Seeley, a Poland senior, said she cried during AT&T's documentary "The Last Text." You feel for the families, she said, and what they must go through.
Seeley, Student Representative Board president and a basketball and softball player, said she doesn’t text and drive. If she gets caught, her parents have already warned: We're taking the car and the phone.
She also signed Smith’s "It Can Wait" pledge.
“(Some teens) think that it’s important to be able to respond to the text," she said. "They always need to be talking to that person, feel like . . . if they don’t respond right away, the (other person) might be feeling ignored. Usually, if it’s like 15 minutes, I’ll say, 'Sorry, I was driving.'”
From "The Last Text," a 10-minute AT&T national documentary on the sometimes deadly consequences of texting and driving:
The text message from her sister that Ashley Umscheid, 19, was reading when she hit a median and flipped her truck, ejecting her from the vehicle and killing her.
The text 17-year-old Patrick Sims was reading before his car drifted off the side of the road and struck a bicyclist, killing a 63-year-old retired geologist.
The text message being sent by a driver, on his way to the movies, before he left the road and hit a tree. His passenger, Wil Craig, suffered severe brain damage and now needs help with basic functions.
"where u at"
The text that Mariah West, 18, was reading the day before graduation, on her way to meet a boy and watch his baseball game. She died after she drove across a median and struck a concrete barrier.