TAMPA — Astrid Skjaerpe swerved across double yellow lines and then back to her own lane. It was a quick recovery that would end badly, when seconds later, the 17-year-old slammed into two pedestrians in a crosswalk.
Cell phone in hand, Astrid had been texting.
Fortunately, the accident was not real. AT&T organized the experiment as part of its "It Can Wait" campaign to teach teens the dangers of texting while driving. On Wednesday, representatives from AT&T and the Peers Foundation brought the experiment to Tampa Preparatory School.
Students climbed behind the wheel of a Nissan Versa hatchback and pulled on headgear that showed a roadway with other cars, stoplights and pedestrians. As their peers watched nearby on a large screen, the student drivers turned the steering wheel and pressed gas and brake pedals hooked to a simulator.
While the teens laughed as they watched their peers slam into trees and barrels and lakes, they also were reminded that the game had real-world consequences.
On a documentary video, the students watched as a mom cut a birthday cake for her daughter who would have turned 19. She had died in an accident while texting and driving. A young man talked about his accident while texting and driving that permanently damaged his brain.
The campaign comes at the start of summer — typically a season rife with teen accidents.
An AT&T survey found that texting is the most common way teens communicate, with an average of 3,417 messages exchanged per month. Forty-three percent of teen respondents admitted to texting while driving. One possible reason, according to the survey, is that they expect a reply to a message within five minutes or less. Another is that they see their parents do it.
"Teens are new drivers," said company spokeswoman Michele Money-Carson. "It's a deadly combination"
Josh Puretz, 16, says his dad texts and drives. His friends do it, too. As he drove the simulated car, he texted his mom: "Hey Mom. What U up to?"
Her reply came in seconds.
"Need more sleep."
Astrid has been driving two years and says she texts her mom from behind the wheel.
"That's embarrassing," Astrid said as she stepped out of the car after her accident.
"If I drive like that when I text, I probably shouldn't text," she said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.