Thursday, November 16, 2017
Public safety

Students learn of tragedy, consequences of texting while driving

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SPRING HILL

Kyle Kampsen, 15, was making a turn when the text came in, asking if he was going anywhere fun. He picked up the phone, one-handed, and began to dab a response with his thumb, the other hand on the steering wheel. His eyes were on the phone's screen when he slammed into a car parked on the side of the road.

There was no damage. No casualties. No one permanently incapacitated. This was a simulator set up in the auditorium lobby at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School to demonstrate the dangers of texting and driving.

Kyle stood up from the computer monitor, steering wheel controller and phone, and joined his brother Zack, who had just been virtually pulled over for driving single-digit speeds in a 35 mph zone. His foot had left the gas pedal when he picked up the phone.

"It was pretty tough," Kyle said, admitting defeat and promising never to text when he gets his license.

Zack, 17, had driven to school that morning. He sheepishly admitted to texting in the past. But after the assembly, the documentary he'd just seen and the heartbreaking story told by parents who lost a daughter, a former student at Bishop, he seemed repentant.

"When you pick up your phone," he said, "you don't think 'I'm going to kill someone's family today.' You think you're above it.

"You can permanently change someone's life, and that just puts a burden on everyone — and it's just dumb."

On Tuesday, texting while driving officially became illegal in Florida, the 41st state to make it so. But law enforcement will not be able to pull over a driver specifically 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. The penalties are $30 plus court costs for a first offense and $60 for a second offense.

Bishop McLaughlin was the only school in Pasco County with an assembly put on by AT&T to educate students about the ban.

Gathered in the school's auditorium, students heard statistics: 77 percent of students have seen parents texting and driving. You're 23 times more likely to crash when texting.

They watched a documentary of anecdotes from real families forever altered by texting and driving. In it, a boy named Xavier was paralyzed from the chest down and hooked to life support after a texting driver blew through a stop sign and hit him. A man who killed three people in a wreck pleaded with the audience not to text and drive. Another woman could barely move or speak after being hit by a teenage driver distracted by her phone.

Then a man, who had helped shepherd the bill through the House, walked to the center of the stage.

Punctuated by shuddering sighs, in front of everyone, Steve Augello relived the night of his daughter's death.

Allie, 17, was a senior at Bishop McLaughlin. On Nov. 10, 2008, she had called to say she was headed home from drama practice. Augello cooked dinner and watched the clock. Allie never arrived.

When it got late, Steve and Allie's mother, his wife Agnes, got in the car and retraced Allie's route. They saw blue emergency lights on Hudson Avenue. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper put his hand on Steve's shoulder to tell him a teen who had been texting veered across the center line and struck Allie's car. Both young women died at the scene.

Tuesday was a landmark on what has been a seemingly endless road the Augellos have driven to Tallahassee over the last five years to get the new law enacted. They laid purple daisies on a memorial by the school's auditorium. Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, called it a somber celebration.

"We live the horror every day," Augello said, standing next to his wife.

"Hopefully people will take it seriously," she said, "and that gives us all a chance to survive on the road."

Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

 
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