‘Put it down’ campaign to address texting while driving epidemic

Last year, senior Julian Malagon was the victim of a hit and run on U.S. 1 that left him with a broken nose, stitches above his left eye and two sprained ankles. Two months ago his car was totaled when a student ran a flashing red light at the intersection of Miller Drive and Red Road.

In the instances, both drivers were looking at their cellphones.

In order to raise awareness on texting and driving, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the University of Miami, with the aid of other partners, will be holding an outreach event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Oct. 24 on the Rock.

The event will be held as part of the “Put it Down” campaign to educate students about the dangers of distracted driving.

“Nobody ever thinks that sending a text could end with a catastrophic result,” said Tara Kirschner, the executive director of the Dori Slosberg Foundation, one of FDOT’s partners. “Again and again, we are finding that it does.”

Distracted driving does not solely refer to cellphone use. According to Carlos Sarmiento, the community traffic safety program coordinator for FDOT District 6, it includes anything that takes your hands or mind off the road – putting on makeup, eating, changing the radio station or even engaging in conversation with passengers.

“You can get so caught up in those actions, but it takes a fraction of a second to put someone in danger,” Sarmiento said.

The campaign, which began on Labor Day and runs through the end of October, targets those between the ages of 16 and 24. It is part of a national effort by the U.S. Department of Transportation to end distracted driving, which Distraction.gov, the official government website, refers to as an “epidemic.”

“All my friends text,” senior Erik Akre said. “It’s not like any of them would say, ‘Hey, I’m driving, I can’t text you back.’”

Some UM students admitted they use their cell phones while driving despite thinking it’s dangerous.

“It’s bad,” said freshman communications major Kenia Vasallo. “Everyone does it. It’s a big deal because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Although Florida is one of few states with no cellphone driving laws, those involved in the campaign hope statistics from the USDOT will offer other reasons to “put it down.”

According to Sarmiento, the mutilated car on one of the campaign posters is from a fatal wreck in which a young man swerved into the lane of oncoming traffic while texting and collided with a semi-truck.

“For the most part, I don’t think people will get it until it happens to them, or someone they’re close to. It’s unfortunate,” Malagon said.

The UM event will feature the UM Police Department, the Department of Parking and Transportation, the Association of Commuter Students and many more.

Students will have the opportunity to visit promotional booths, speak with law enforcement officers and try driving simulators provided by the American Automobile Association.

They will also walk away with some free items and potentially life-saving knowledge.

“I want as many students as possible to come out and take advantage of these resources,” Kirschner said.

Students will also be able to take a pledge saying they will not text and drive. Until then, Sarmiento has a message for students: “If you start with yourself, it can trickle down to others and everyone can do the right thing.”