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November 22, 2011

Tenn. health department warns against texting and driving

Yolanda Putman
The Chattanooga Times Free Press

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Ambulance and tow truck lights twirled from a distance as 16-year-old Jasmine Moss walked closer to a silver Volvo wrecked so badly the car hood crunched up toward the windshield and the fender was nearly detached.

"I see all the commercials and I see stuff that can happen, but I never think, I really honestly don't think it will happen to me," said Jasmine.

The Tyner High School junior was among dozens of students and adults who passed by the banged-up car Monday in the school parking lot. The vehicle was one of several that local wrecker crews will have on display at local high schools to show students the possible result of texting and driving.

Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department officials started displaying the crashed cars near the end of October to coincide with National Teen Driver Safety Week.

"We want people to understand not to text and drive or have any kind of distraction while you're driving because it can lead to crashes and even to a fatality," said Christy Smith, highway safety coordinator with the Health Department.

Health officials said they have no local numbers to illustrate how many accidents have been the result of texting and driving, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that "nearly 15 people die each day in the United States in crashes that involved distracted driving, and another 1,200 people are injured."

Caroline Johnson, Chattanooga's driver education coordinator, distributed brochures Monday at Tyner promoting driver education for teens.

"We make it a priority to teach teens about the dangers of distractions, whether it's putting on makeup or eating or the very presence of passengers," she said. "Passengers have a responsibility to safe driving, too."

People sometimes indicate on police reports that an accident occurred because a driver was texting or dropped the phone and reached to pick up, Johnson said.

Texting while driving became illegal in Tennessee on July 1, 2009, law enforcement officials said.

Sgt. Eric Merkle with the Hamilton County Sheriff Office said nearly every deputy in the county has made a traffic stop where distracted driving was the cause. He said he wants to stop teens from distracted driving before it has a chance to settle into habit.

"Kids learn driving habits early, and they'll use those habits for the rest of their lives," he said. "We want them to practice good habits."

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