Local attorney presents distracted driving dangers to students

BRISTOL — “How many of your friends drive distracted?” Emily Joselson asked the juniors and seniors assembled in the Mount Abraham Union High School auditorium Monday morning.

A few brave hands rose at first, then scores more, until half of the students thrust a hand into the air.

“What are some examples of distracted driving?” Joselson pressed.

The students, shy at first, offered a litany of answers — changing the radio, eating a banana, putting on makeup, texting, reaching for a CD in the back seat.

It was all part of a program to enhance awareness of distracted driving, hosted by Joselson, personal injury attorney at Langrock, Sperry and Wool, a large firm with offices in Burlington and Middlebury.

Accompanied by a slideshow, Joselson presented a list of facts about distracted driving, which she defined as any action that diverts attention away from driving.

“Distracted driving has become an epidemic in society,” Joselson told the students. “It’s become the norm.”

Joselson said distracted driving created something scientists called “inattention blindness,” where the brain does not notice an unexpected stimulus such as drifting into an oncoming lane or approaching a stop sign.

Studies have shown, Joselson said, that distractions actually limit a drivers’ field of vision. While drivers may only look away from the road for a few seconds, many do not realize how far a vehicle, even one that is abiding by the speed limit, travels during that time.

A car traveling at 50 miles per hour is covering 75 feet per second. It takes an average person 4 seconds to look at their phone and process the information on the screen, meaning that their vehicle will travel the entire length of a football field while they are not looking at the road.

Joselson said that driving distracted increases the likelihood of being involved in an accident just as much as driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol content, Vermont’s legal limit for driving. Looking at a text message increases that risk by eight times.

As part of the presentation, Joselson played videos produced by different state departments of public safety that showed families that had lost loved ones in distracted driving accidents, and guilt-wracked drivers who had killed others behind the wheel.

“Each of these stories was 100 percent preventable,” Joselson said. “It’s a question about making a choice.”

The Mount Abe students left the assembly with a contract to sign if they pledged to not drive distracted. Joselson urged the students to also talk to their parents about the dangers of multitasking on the road.

Joselson said she gave a similar presentation at Middlebury Union High School, her children’s school, a few months ago, and next week will visit Vergennes Union High School. The talks are sponsored, in part, by the Vermont Association for Justice, a group of trial attorneys.

Joselson said that private attorneys also have teamed up with Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan for similar school presentations in that county.

After Monday’s presentation, Joselson told the Independent that she believed a new law passed late last week by the Vermont Legislature to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving was a positive step. Gov. Peter Shumlin told the Independent this week that he will sign the bill into law.

But Joselson says in addition to the new law it is equally important to educate young people about distracted driving

“Just because it’s illegal isn’t enough,” she said. “We need to teach young people that the brain can’t multitask as well as we think it can.”

Teacher Sharon Koller, who helped organize the event, agreed that the new law is only a first step.

“The law is one thing, but we need to change what is socially acceptable,” she said. “We need to have that expectation for one another.”

Koller said integrating curriculum about drunk and distracted driving may be a way to stress how dangerous distracted driving is.

“Tying them together makes a lot of sense, since they are similar issues,” Koller said.

Joselson said she hopes the distracted driving one day carries the same stigma that surrounds drunk driving today.

At an identical presentation at Mount Abe Tuesday, this time for freshmen and sophomores, Joselson said she has also enlisted the help of Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster for school presentations. Joselson said she reached out to Fenster because he also sees the results of distracted driving in his work.

“It’s a criminal issue, and he sees the criminal side of it,” Joselson said of Fenster. “He has a big interest in protecting the public, in protecting these kids from the horrible consequences of distracted driving.”

Joselson said she has seen more and more distracted driving-related cases come across her desk, a trend that is disconcerting.

“In police reports, they are more often asking for call records,” Joselson said. “It’s no longer unusual as probable cause for negligent driving.”

Fenster said that in his career, he has prosecuted many cases that involved distracted driving.

“Even years ago, we had distracted driving,” he said. “The distractions were just different.”

Fenster added that people of all ages drive distracted, not just teens attached to their beloved cell phones.

“I see it as a problem affecting everyone,” Fenster said.

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