First Place 2021: Wyatt Earth Millwood

Florence, AL

Senior at Austin High School in Decatur. Wyatt will be attending the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) this fall and plans to pursue a career in Criminal Law.

Distracted Driving Essay

“According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Board (NHTSB), there were 2,526 teenage traffic deaths in the United States in 2017. Of that staggering number, 9% were related to distracted driving. That is 227 young lives lost. Two-hundred, twenty-seven future doctors, writers, research scientists, artists, politicians, inventors, leaders, and potentials never realized. The possibilities that were lost are innumerable, but the cause is clear and preventable.

How can we educate our community about the dangers of distracted driving and what are some practical ways we can drastically reduce distracted driving related accidents? The answer starts at home. Children and adolescents see more than parents realize. Our earliest behaviors are reflections of what we see the adults around us doing. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When adults stress safety measures to their impressionable kids but do not exhibit the behaviors, teenagers are more likely to do what you do and not what you say.

At 17, the human brain is not even fully hard wired. Many synaptic connections will not be fully completed until a person’s mid to late twenties. Yet, at 17, today’s young people have a high level of independence that includes holding jobs, driving cars, being responsible for younger siblings, and access to lots of technology and endless sources of data. Parents and adults have to demonstrate the behaviors they want teenagers to mimic. It is not okay for parents to tell kids not to text and drive, but routinely talk on the phone, shuffle playlists, or text while driving. Yes, it is hypocritical, but it is deadly too. Just because an adult can manage a high-pressure job that requires multitasking and possesses advanced skill levels, it does not mean they shouldn’t give 100% to driving safety.

Early education in schools and peer groups is also extremely important. Six weeks of driver’s education is not enough to either properly prepare or deter young people who think they are invincible. Real, scary, and relevant information should be taught from kindergarten up. I think the drama initiatives that some schools and community organizations hold to act out tragedies like distracted driving accidents and their aftermaths are effective. Also, having law enforcement and emergency services personnel speak with teenagers about the real-life horrors they deal with on a daily basis would have an impact. (Males especially are visual learners.) I truly believe it takes a village to raise a generation, but we as a society have gotten away from that strong sense of community.

Teenagers have to be accountable for their actions. A slap on the wrist or driving school for getting caught distracted driving is a joke. An automobile is a potential deadly weapon. The seriousness of what could happen should not be lost just because a kid got lucky and nothing happened “this time.” Potential violators should be confronted by the families of victims who were killed by distracted drivers and other tragedies. It would also be good community service to have offenders speak to their peers about how their lives were changed and their futures destroyed by distracted driving and wrong choices.

It is also important to stress to young people that distracted driving is not just texting while driving. The NHTSB defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system — anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.” We sometimes forget that all these activities have the real potential to dangerously distract the driver of any age. Poor time management and jam-packed schedules and hectic lifestyles have left our society with situations where family time is eating in the car while shuttling from one activity to another. At some point, we have to collectively stop and take a deep breath. All things considered, Covid-19 has helped every one take a step back.

This is the twenty-first century. We may not have flying cars or a colony on the moon and we may all be hostage to a microscopic virus, but we do have advanced super computers and smart phones that have changed our lives in phenomenal ways. Technology may be the main cause of distracted driving, but I believe it may also be the cure. Developing targeted safe driving applications (apps) could be used to disable phones or set safety parameters for vehicles operated by teenagers. Programs that sync smart phones to car computers already exist. Parental controls or self-selected controls could lock out texting or specific others phone functions while driving.

Already, the technology to keep convicted impaired drivers from operating motor vehicles exists in the form of breathalyzers synced to cars. This same technology could be adapted to driving distractions like receiving and sending texts, private messages, notifications, and calling functions, safety features more restrictive than “do not disturb” settings on most phones. I know as a teenager, I do not want my autonomy taken away, but I also know I am not mature enough to handle the consequences of what could happen if I make the wrong choice of texting while driving. And it would not have to be just parents locking teenagers out of functions. I know many of my friends and peers would voluntarily choose to use apps like these. Whether out of fear or just common sense, sometimes young people do make the right choices when given the opportunity.

Until confronted with real facts and people that prove otherwise, most teenagers do not understand that eating or playing with the radio while driving as well as too much activity in a car can create potentially deadly situations just like texting and driving. It only takes a split second for an accident to happen. The driver needs to be in control and focused and ready to react defensibly to other vehicles on the roadway. Education has made a tremendous impact in reducing motor vehicle accidents related to speeding and alcohol and drug impaired drivers. Education will be the key to reducing distracted driving accidents. However, we are fortunate to also have current and developing technology that can positively impact how we as a society deal with distracted driving. This is an issue that affects all of us, and the solution will likewise require us to come together as a community.”