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When texting leads to tragedy: The deadly consequences of texting while driving

texting while driving tragedy When he was 19 and driving to work on the final day of summer in 2006, Reggie Shaw drove his car across the center line and crashed into two other cars, killing two people, James Furfaro, 38, and Keith O’Dell, 50.

Shaw was texting his girlfriend at the time of the crash. 

When he was 20, Shaw was court-ordered to speak publicly about his experience. In the last five years, he's spoken to nearly 300 groups around the country about the dangers of texting while driving.

Shaw's story is told in "A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention," by Pulitzer-prize winner, Matt Richtel.

We asked him what he's learned, why it's so tough for younger drivers to keep their attention on the road and what advice he has for all drivers.

Q. What made you decide to become an advocate to promote education on distracted driving?

A. I agreed to perform 200 hours of community service. I decided I owed it to the men who were killed and their families to speak.

I started speaking to schools, community groups and youth groups. Within six months, I'd completed my community service. But I decided the message was important enough for me to keep talking about it.

The first talk I gave was to the middle school in the town where I grew up. That was tough. I wasn't a good speaker -- I'd never told my story in front of anyone. The next place I spoke was to the state of Utah's legislature, which was also a challenge. 

Q. What kind of reaction do you get when you speak to students and teen drivers? Has anything changed in the years you've been speaking?

A. The more I've spoken, the better I've gotten at delivering messages that connect with the audience. The main question I get is about the (O'Dell and Furfaro) families and what kind of relationship I have with them today.

Overall, reaction has been very positive. Students ask really good questions. I've heard a lot of stories. After I speak, I make myself available to students and others. They're often reluctant to ask questions in front of their peers.

Sometimes they want to talk about something that's happened to them or a family member. The interactions help me stay motivated to continue speaking. I realize distracted driving is a problem that affects people in every state.

Teens are much more aware of the danger of driving and texting. Six years ago when I started speaking, there were people who didn't know it was dangerous. But not today. There's no longer an excuse.

Now the challenge is trying to understand why people won't stop texting while driving and trying to get them to stop.

Q. What do you think are the main barriers that stop advocates like you and, say, AT&T's It Can Wait program and others from getting through to drivers who continue to text while driving?

A. There are many. I think the biggest one is technology -- it keeps getting better. Some vehicles today offer voice-activated smartphones, infotainment systems and Wi-Fi. It's almost like they're promoting distraction.

So as technology gets better, the dangers are increasing. I wish companies would use more of their money to make driving safer.

Some studies show technology can be an addiction. We seem to be wired to be connected with others. Matt Richtel in his book writes about what happens in your brain when your cellphone rings. You get a "dopamine rush" and you want to know why it's ringing, who's contacting you, and what they need.

I've had people tell me they want to stop but they can't. I do believe that for some people, it's an addiction. It's not just teenagers, either.

Q. So you feel texting while driving affects more than just teenagers?

A. You can never have too much focus on driving safely. I don't think there's enough focus for adults. Adult drivers might reasons that since they're experienced drivers, they can handle more distractions. But that's not necessarily true. 

Today's new teenage drivers will learn about the dangers of distracted driving from their driver's education instructor. But that's not true for drivers in their mid-20s and older. 

In Utah we have a program called Zero Fatalities. I work closely with them. Before a teen can get their license, they attend an hour-long presentation with their parents. It's an opportunity to re-educate parents about how important it is to drive without any distractions. It's an excellent program.

Q. What advice do you have for readers who think texting and driving is no big deal?

A. It's simple. If you're on your phone or texting when you drive, it's not a matter of if you'll be in a crash or hurt someone. It's a matter of when.

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