Fam­ily’s tragedy is re­minder to text less and live more

The Covington News - - OPINION -

It is a po­ten­tial killer whose num­bers ri­val the deadly Ebola virus and it doesn’t get near the at­ten­tion it should. Un­like the dreaded ill­ness cur­rently rav­aging West Africa this is one with a quick cure.

This killer? Tex­ting while driv­ing. The cure? Don’t do it. There is no text so ur­gent as to dis­tract you in a ma­chine weigh­ing two tons that takes half a foot­ball field to stop if you are driv­ing only 55 mph. And who drives 55 mph any­more?

Stud­ies from the Har­vard Cen­ter for Risk Anal­y­sis, the Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and the In­for­ma­tion In­sti­tute for High­way Safety put the num­ber of an­nual deaths from tex­ting while driv­ing at some­where between 3,500 and 4,000. Do the math. That’s roughly 10 or more deaths per day in the United States.

Ge­or­gia has had a law on the books since 2010 that pro­hibits tex­ting while driv­ing. It is known as Caleb Law, named for Caleb Soro­han, of Rut­ledge, a young man who lost his life a few days be­fore Christ­mas in 2009. It was de­ter­mined that tex­ting while driv­ing was the cause. Caleb’s fam­ily was a prime force in the pas­sage of the law.

But, sadly, it is a tough law to en­force. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers pretty much have to catch some­one in the act. The re­sult is that too many times they are deal­ing with the tragic af­ter­math of some­one’s poor de­ci­sion to text and drive.

Har­ris Black­wood, the direc­tor of the Ge­or­gia Gover­nor’s Of­fice of High­way Safety, says of tex­ting while driv­ing, “Try­ing to con­vince teens, who think they are in­vin­ci­ble, that this could kill them, is tough. Some­one who is en­gaged in tex­ting is just as dan­ger­ous as a driver who is legally drunk.” Black­wood adds, “But don’t think this is only a ‘teen thing’. Many teens do this be­cause they have seen their par­ents do it.”

Mer­ritt Le­vi­tan, of Bos­ton, was a vi­va­cious 18-year-old scholar-ath­lete soon to en­ter Col­gate Univer­sity. Her life ended July 3 last year while on a cross-coun­try cy­cling trip from Charleston, S.C. to Cal­i­for­nia with a group of friends. In Arkansas, they were struck from be­hind by a 21-year-old man in a pickup truck who was — you guessed it — tex­ting. Six of the young rid­ers were se­ri­ously in­jured. Mer­ritt Le­vi­tan died from brain in­juries.

Mer­ritt’s par­ents, Anna and Richard Le­vi­tan, have re­cently moved to Saint Si­mons Is­land from the Bos­ton area and like the Soro­hans are do­ing their part to turn their per­sonal tragedy into an op­por­tu­nity to save other young lives — and ours — from sim­i­lar tragedies.

Fol­low­ing her death, a group of Mer­ritt’s class­mates at Mil­ton Academy in Mas­sachusetts founded the “Tex­tLess Live More” campaign in her honor. Their mis­sion is to de­crease ex­ces­sive phone use and or­ga­nize “text-free” phone days. One of the young or­ga­niz­ers said, “We want to change be­hav­ior. We want peo­ple to start tex­ting less in their daily lives.” On the first Tex­tLess day in Oc­to­ber 2013, 500 in­di­vid­u­als signed up.

They’ve also dis­trib­uted more than 10,000 blue “Tex­tLess Live More for Mer­ritt” bracelets, along with kits ex­plain­ing their mis­sion. In ad­di­tion, Gian­carlo Es­pos­ito, who played Gus on the AMC hit show, “Break­ing Bad” has filmed two ex­cel­lent public ser­vice an­nounce­ments for the campaign. You can check them out at Text­lesslive­more.org.

The “Tex­tLess Live More” move­ment is be­gin­ning to spread through­out the coun­try. I am hop­ing it makes its way into Ge­or­gia’s high schools and col­leges. It couldn’t come soon enough.

Anna Le­vi­tan says the campaign is not meant to dis­cour­age peo­ple from us­ing their cell­phones but to en­cour­age them to step out­side their vir­tual world and spend time help­ing oth­ers — as Mer­ritt did.

As for Tea­gan Martin, of New­port, Ark., a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Arkansas, and the driver of the pickup truck that took the life of their daugh­ter, he was re­cently sen­tenced to com­mu­nity ser­vice. Ms. Le­vi­tan says they have for­given him. “We are en­cour­ag­ing him to re­build his life,” she states,” and we are hop­ing he will join us in our ef­forts.” I hope he does, too.

There is noth­ing so im­por­tant in our lives that we have to text while we drive. It is a stupid, undis­ci­plined habit and it needs to stop. We may never find a cure for Ebola, but we can damned sure cure this id­i­otic ob­ses­sion with tex­ting while be­hind the wheel of a car. The world is dan­ger­ous enough as it is. It is time we text less and live more.

You can reach Dick Yar­brough at yarb2400@ bell­south.net; at P.O. Box 725373, At­lanta, Ge­or­gia 31139; on­line at dick­yarbrough.com or on Face­book at www.face­book. com/dick­yarb

DICK YAR­BROUGH

COLUM­NIST

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