For third-grader Nina Pezzello and fifth-grader Lynnsey Spader it was an episode of Extreme Home Makeover that drove home the lesson of how dangerous distracted driving can be.
In that episode the family of Alex Brown, a 17-year-old who died in a 2009 rollover accident while texting, appeared with pop star Justin Bieber to caution teens against driving while texting. The episode left an impression on the two girls.
On Monday they appeared at a state capitol press conference with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and members of the Connecticut law enforcement community to announce the fourth wave of its stepped up police enforcement to discourage distracted driving.
Inspired by what happened to Brown, Pezzello has been trying to round up 5,000 signatures from people who will pledge not to engage in distracted driving. For her the concept is simple—it’s dangerous so just don’t do it.
“At home and in school I have rules I have to follow,” she told reporters. “All you have to do is follow this one simple rule and no more brothers and sisters have to die.”
Pezzello herself has three older sisters. Two of them are already driving and one of is about to get her learners permit, she said.
The lieutenant governor seemed willing to follow that rule and signed the girl’s petition.
Law enforcement and transportation officials were on hand to offer statistics to back up the girls’ concerns. In 2009, 5,474 people were killed nationwide due to accidents related to distracted driving, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That same study found that distracted driving led to an additional 448,000 injuries. Drivers using handheld devices are four times as likely to be involved in a serious accident, it said.
But for the past year, Connecticut has been the site of a pilot program, funded by a federal grant, and designed to curb distracted driving. That program, rolled out in seven day waves, has led to 6,914 citations for people talking on cell phones and 248 citations for texting, according to statistics compiled from the participating agencies.
National Highway Transportation Safety Administrator Philip Weiser said Connecticut was chosen for the pilot program due to its successes in improving road safety. The seatbelt campaign, Click-it or Ticket, was referenced as a success.
The fourth wave of the campaign, titled “Phone in one hand, ticket in the other,” is set to begin in the first two weeks of April. But Hartford Police Chief Daryl Roberts said that while the program may be ending soon, enforcement of distracted driving laws will continue.
Police officials said it was important to realize distracted driving isn’t limited to cell phone use. Distracted driving occurs whenever someone takes their eyes off the road, hands off the steering wheel or their attention away from driving, they said.