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Schools play key role in telling about texting-while-driving ban

Put it down. No text is worth a life. Don't text and drive — it's the law.

And Tampa Bay schools want students to know.

Across the region, schools are ramping up efforts to raise awareness about Florida's new texting-while-driving law and to educate one of the most at-risk demographics on the road — teenage drivers.

With the ban taking effect Tuesday, the outreach by schools will be key. Florida is going without a major campaign to alert the public about the law after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $1 million expenditure intended in part to help promote the ban.

Efforts to bring the public up to speed could be spotty, aside from digital billboards that will alert highway drivers to the change and Tuesday being officially named "Put It Down Day."

Young people are among the most likely to text message and talk on a cellphone behind the wheel. Teens not only have the highest crash rate of any age group in Florida, but drivers under 20 have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes. Nationwide, texting while driving causes 11 teen deaths every day.

"What they've got to understand is when you're texting, driving becomes secondary," said Sgt. John McMurdo, school resource officer supervisor with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. "No text message is worth the safety or life of those you share the roadway with."

Tampa Bay schools are taking up the cause to varying degrees.

In Pinellas County, the district will post warning signs about the new law outside all high school and vocational center exits — at a total cost of less than $1,000.

"No texting while driving," they'll say. "It's the law."

The signs are expected to go up this week.

The district also planned to send a message to high school principals containing possible slogans they can publish, including, "Tickets for texting and driving. Obey the law."

In addition, the district is giving schools a prepared statement about the law and the dangers of texting while driving that administrators can use during morning news shows and school announcements.

In Hillsborough County, top high school administrators and school officials are being given T-shirts to help raise awareness about the ban — four T-shirts to a school. Also, school resource officers and deputies will participate in a public awareness campaign, according to the district.

In Pasco County, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School is joining with AT&T to host an "It Can Wait" event featuring a texting simulator. The parents of a former student who died in a texting-related crash in 2008 will address students for the first time since her death.

Pasco public school officials don't plan any districtwide initiatives, but individual schools may issue reminders about the law.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office is sending five educational videos about the dangers of texting and driving to the district's high schools and asking the schools to play them during morning announcements throughout the week. Resource officers will speak about the new law. Fliers and banners about distracted driving and texting will be placed around the schools.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will run a public service announcement on Channel One, a daily news program reaching 65,000 high school students in 70 high schools. It will run Tuesday and Oct. 15.

Florida will be the 41st state to prohibit texting while driving. But unlike in the majority of those states, law enforcement will not be able to pull over a driver just because he or she is texting. Officers will need to witness another violation, such as swerving or running a stop sign, to ticket a driver for texting, a secondary offense.

Another wrinkle: It's okay to text if you're stopped at a red light or if you have a talk-to-text device such as iPhone's Siri.

The penalties are $30 plus court costs for a first offense and $60 for a second offense.

Most students across the region seem aware of the law — and the risks of driving while distracted. They have mixed feelings as to how effective it will be.

Rochelle Gober, a junior at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, said she feels teens are well educated about the hazards. She says parents need to take up the cause.

"Parents need to tell their kids and follow the law themselves," Gober said. "It's common sense."

She says the ban doesn't go far enough. "If someone sees you using your phone while in the driver's seat, you should be able to be pulled over," she said. "It should be a first offense."

Prestij Drayton, a 16-year-old junior at Tampa Bay Tech High School, admits to texting while driving — even though she knows it's never appropriate.

She said it will be tough to follow the law.

"I am so used to it and I am a rapid texter, so I am always texting someone back," she said.

She believes the new law won't be able to stop people.

"People already have that mind-set to text and drive," she said. "And it's really hard to change someone's mind-set."

Tb-two* reporters Heather Finster and Danyscia Jarvis contributed to this report. Contact Danny Valentine at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @Danny_Valentine

Schools play key role in telling about texting-while-driving ban 09/29/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 29, 2013 10:56pm]

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