Just as classes began March 28, the 2,300 students at Skyline High School in Mesa were called to a special assembly at the football stadium. As they arrived, they found one of their classmates, Payton Bland, dead on the hood of a car. Her bicycle lay crumpled in the crosswalk. Three other classmates in the car were severely injured and the first Mesa police officers were arriving on scene. The driver of the car was dazed and clinging to her cell phone.
Fortunately, for those involved this accident and the injuries were only simulated. However, the drama that ensued was a vivid portrayal of the consequences of distracted driving. The student body watched as the Mesa Fire and Medical Department prepared the scene to care for the injured. Firefighters used the jaws of life to peel back the car’s roof to extract Jaden Goodfellow, one of the student actors, from the passenger seat. A helicopter from Native Air arrived to transfer Goodfellow to a hospital where he was listed in critical condition. The others in the car were treated on scene and transported in waiting ambulances from the scene of the accident.
While crews worked the crash scene, Mesa Councilmember Kevin Thompson, from District 6, addressed the students. He reminded students that just reading a simple text message while driving a car may result in something like what they were watching.
“This type of event affects more than just the people in the car,” Thompson said. “I’m very proud of the Mesa Fire and Police Departments and their enthusiasm for being part of demonstrations like this.”
In the meantime, Nicole DelPrete, the driver, was being interview by a Mesa police officer. He found that her cell phone contained messages that were sent just seconds before the accident. The interview also revealed she might have been under the influence of marijuana so the officer did a field sobriety test. Following the test, DelPrete was placed in handcuffs and escorted to a waiting police vehicle.
This high-fidelity simulation had a dramatic impact on most of those 2,300 students watching from the stadium bleachers. Senior Ben Trujillo watched intently as one of his classmates was zipped into a body bag. The reality of the simulation caused him to think about his friends. He noted that most of them avoid texting while driving. But statistics suggest Trujillo’s friends are unique.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2014, 3,179 people were killed, and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Ten percent of all drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted at the time of the crashes. According to a AAA poll, 94 percent of teen drivers acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving, but 35 percent admitted to doing it anyway.
AT&T was a co-sponsor of the event and brought their high tech 3-D video simulator for students to use during their lunch break.
Toni Morales, director of external and legislative affairs for AT&T Southwest, described the company’s seven-year commitment to curbing distracted driving with the “It Can Wait” program.
“I’m very proud to work for a company that is so active in protecting people from the disastrous impact of distracted driving,” Morales said. She went on to describe the AT&T ItCanWait.com website where anyone can use social media to sign a pledge against distracted driving and post a picture with the pledge written on the palm of their hand. To date, over 14 million people nationwide have signed the pledge.
One of the important reasons for such a dramatic simulation is the upcoming end of school with prom night, graduation and summer vacation. Times when distracted driving seems to be more frequent among young drivers. The hour-long simulation ended and the crowd showed its appreciation with applause for the actors, the police and firefighters.
– Ted Wendel is staff photographer for MyNewsMesa.com.