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Madison Heights

Madison High students pledge to not text and drive

Jan. 11 event featured Monster Jam truck and driver

January 23, 2013

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Students mingle around the monster truck Brutus, a 3D concept truck designed to resemble a dog with bloodshot eyes and a snarling, fang-filled mouth.

MADISON HEIGHTS — The monster truck Brutus weighs 10,000 pounds and stands 13 feet tall on 66-inch wheels. It has a blown alcohol injected motor with 1,600 horse power, and in venues like the recent Monster Jam at Ford Field, it jumps busses, boats, railcars and planes. 

But its driver, Chris Bergeron, of Columbus Township, also wears a fire suit, a full harness, a neck restraint and a helmet. He’s inside a steel cage and operates under the eye of event supervisors, who can turn off the truck remotely, if things turn dangerous.

It’s a controlled environment, all about safety, even as it celebrates wrecking stuff. And it’s worlds apart from driving on the real road, where one misstep can kill you or someone else.

Such was the point of Brutus parking outside Madison High on Jan. 11, and Bergeron speaking at a presentation about the perils of texting while driving. At the end of the event, students could sign a pledge not to text while driving. Each student who signed the pledge received two tickets to Monster Jam the following day.

“When you’re a kid on the road, you think you’re invincible, saying, ‘I can text and drive.’ … But you have to worry about the kid who will run out in front of you chasing his ball, or the person walking his dog on the side of the road — if you put your head down for one second and hit that person, it’s your fault, and the rest of your world has ended right there, along with someone else’s,” Bergeron said.

“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to kill somebody or get killed today,’” he said. “Nobody wakes up expecting to do that, but it happens every minute of every day, and we’re here to ask the kids to not look away, to sign a pledge to not text while driving.”

While the event was planned well in advance, Gov. Rick Snyder coincidentally signed Kelsey’s Law earlier that week. The new measure makes using a cell phone while driving a civil infraction for anyone driving on a level 1 or level 2 graduated driver’s license in Michigan. The goal is to curb distracted driving deaths among teenagers.

It’s a problem growing all the time, as more teens take up phones and turn to texting. Jim Santilli, executive director of the Traffic Improvement Association of Michigan, had some sobering statistics to share with the students.

Traffic crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for people ages 15-20, Santilli said, noting that in 2010, nearly 3,100 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers, and around 416,000 more were injured.

Distracted driving, Santilli said, can be defined in a number of ways. It can be visual, taking your eyes off the road; it can be manual, taking your hands off the wheel; and it can be cognitive, taking your mind off what you’re doing.

Texting involves all three. And sending or reading a text, Santilli said, takes one’s eyes off the road for an average 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s the equivalent of driving the length of a football field while blindfolded.

A chilling example of distracted driving was shown as part of the presentation: footage of a car some distance ahead down the road, suddenly swerving right and clipping a truck, and bouncing into the oncoming lane, where it was immediately obliterated by another truck. It was like a freight train barreling through a cardboard box.

“And again, for what?” said Santilli. “The question is, is any message so important that you’re willing to give up your life, or kill somebody else?”

Officer Kevin Barrett from the Madison Heights Police Department spelled out the consequences for someone guilty of distracted driving, from loss of license and steep fines to civil liability and jail or prison time, when someone is injured or killed. But worse than any of these penalties, he said, is having to carry the irreversible burden of someone’s death or serious injury the rest of your life.

Seeing the deadly error of distracted drivers takes its toll on responders, as well.

“It never gets easier going in,” Barrett said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

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