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West Valley class studies distracted driving

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Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 11:30 pm

FAIRBANKS — A class project at West Valley High School is putting a spotlight on the problem of distracted driving.

The West Valley technical writing class spent the semester surveying more than 1,000 students in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District and unveiled the results at a school assembly Tuesday.

The results showed distracting driving is prevalent among teens:

• 91 percent of respondents looked at their cellphones while driving.

• 22.7 percent had selected music on their iPods or iPhones while driving.

• 73.5 percent keep their cellphones in reach while driving.

• 11 percent reported texting while driving.

• 18.4 percent had seen peers texting while driving.

The survey also showed nearly half of students think the punishment for texting while driving is a ticket. In fact, it’s a misdemeanor offense in Alaska.

Corey Kulis, a West Valley senior in the class, said he was surprised initially by how widespread the problem of distracted driving seems to be. After studying the problem, Kulis said, he sees it all the time — people applying makeup, soothing babies or fiddling with iPods while driving down the road.

“Anything that makes you take a hand off the wheel is distracted driving,” he said.

West Valley teacher Wendi Graham said her students were spurred to explore the topic after a class presentation by Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey.

They went on to find that more than 3,000 people died nationwide in distracted driving crashes in 2010. Two front rows in the front of the auditorium stood during the assembly, representing the 22 young drivers killed by distracted driving during a typical weekend.

Making the statistics more tangible was the goal of Tuesday’s assembly. Students Ashlee Grzembski and Chantel Smallwood stood before the crowd and offered the statistics on distracted driving before playing a harrowing video of a fatal accident caused by texting. A lighter animated video created by West Valley junior Yuni Jones also was played, showing a driver eating, playing music and texting.

The students tossed T-shirts into the crowd, and afterward supplied plastic thumb rings with “W8 2 TXT” printed on them. If a student pulls out a phone to text while wearing the ring, the message could provide a reminder to save the note for later, they said. The class arranged for placemats at Geraldo’s Italian Restaurant to carry anti-distracted driving messages.

Bailey, who watched the presentation, said the message is particularly meaningful coming from teens.

“They’re speaking to their peers,” she said. “There’s some added credibility you wouldn’t have from a government agency or an adult.”

It’s the first time one of Graham’s classes has tackled such a large project, but she said it was a wonderful experience. Each student played an important role, from collecting surveys to doing public presentations.

“We had something for everyone,” Graham said. “Everyone in the class did something significant.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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