2019 Scholarship Winners

Creating a Distracted Driving Family Plan

At Parnall Law, we believe in giving back to the community. And one of the best ways to give back is to support the young people in our community who we feel will continue to “pay it forward.”This year, Parnall Law Firm asked students to ’Create a “Distracted Driving Family Plan” within which you address the safety of your family by proactively committing to a plan that avoids the occurrence(s) of distracted driving by you and the members of your family. We had many great submissions and chose four winners giving away $6,000 in scholarships in our essay contest. We would like to congratulate those students who won and recognize their thought-provoking work.

First Place – $2,500

  • Ronja Steinbach

Second Place – $1,500

  • Michael Bezoian

Third Place (tie) – $1,000 each

  • Madison Theil
  • Connor Davis

Bert Meets Our 2019 Winners

First Place: Ronja Steinbach

When the sun is shining and you are enjoying summer vacation, it’s hard to imagine anything going wrong. But then you get a phone call and suddenly you have to question the meaning of life; you question the fairness of the world; you reflect and find new value in being alive. I was in Germany visiting my grandparents when I got the news that my elementary school best friend was in the hospital, and his younger brother was no longer in this world. A little piece of me shattered and I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face; why did this happen? An 18-wheeler had swerved, overcompensated, crossed to the wrong side of the road, and ultimately destroyed two 13-year old boys’ lives and shattered the hearts of everyone who knew them. What caused that commercial vehicle to lose control? No explicit answer may ever be provided, but generally human mistakes happen because we are prone to distractions. My sophomore year in high school, I had AP psychology with one of the varsity cheerleaders at Albuquerque High. She always smiled in class and I took her quirky comments for granted. I was always thankful for her joyful presence and company. Then, over Thanksgiving break, another driver ran a red light, ending the light of his own life and putting Venessa into a coma, with her body paralyzed and nearly every bone broken. How can you miss a red light? In a perfect world, this tragic car crash would not have happened, so it must have been that either he wasn’t paying attention, or he became so distracted by his destination that he made poor choices. Albuquerque High School has a very tight knit, supportive community. We all care for each other and when one of us suffers a loss, we all feel it. I did not know the family, but just the same, I feel the pain of my peers; a couple of months ago, in Mexico, an entire AHS family was killed in another crash. Once again, the details are not clear, but to some extent, every crash is caused by some type of distraction. People aren’t perfect, so our environments can cause us to make mistakes, but when the cause of such an incident is a distraction that is easily preventable and not just a side effect of being alive, it is no longer a mistake; it becomes a lack of responsibility–a choice. It is important to remember that in cars especially, any error can be fatal. Driving is a privilege and a responsibility, so it is imperative that we see it as such. Every mile behind the wheel is a mile in which your life, and the lives of others, is held between your fingers, a steering wheel, and the pedals beneath your feet. Some situations cannot be controlled, but as a member of society it is our duty to limit factors that could contribute towards less safe driving: distractions. So, what constitutes a distraction? There is no exact definition, but in the context of driving, a distraction takes the form of any external or internal influence that takes or limits your attention on the road. This includes but is not limited to intoxicating substances, cell phones, other people, music, eating, and your own mental/emotional state. There is a reason that driving while under the influence is illegal; why teenagers with a provisional license are only allowed to have one other non family member in the car; why hand free devices are mandated; why you are not supposed to drive when you are extremely upset or tired; why texting and driving is not allowed. Laws are in place to protect us, but in disregarding laws related to driving, we place many more people than just ourselves at risk. In a world of easily accessible information and instant gratification, teenagers especially have become so reliant on smartphones that they carry them around like an extension of their hands. I am no exception to this trend and it is true that smartphones can be very helpful, especially with GPS systems and fast communication. This usually benign and helpful technology has improved and expedited the process of getting to new locations, but it has also led to new problems. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), one in three teens text while driving, and that on a daily basis nine people in the U.S. die from distracted driving crashes. There is an obvious problem here; we need to bring attention to this issue, which in great part depends on education and teaching the importance of responsibility. Responsibility: noun–the fact or state of having a duty to deal with something. With driving, it means acknowledging the risks associated with driving, and taking control of the situation by doing everything in your power to be the safest driver that you can, which has the potential of saving lives. This is especially true for the driver, but it also extends to the passengers. It is their job to eliminate distractions, support the driver in being focused on the road, and holding everyone around them accountable for their actions; driving is a shared responsibility. With all of this in mind, what is my plan to eliminate distracted driving within my family? Firstly, we will all commit to holding each other accountable for our actions. This includes making sure that cell phones are in a place where the driver cannot access them while driving, and sticking to that rule when we are on our own as well. Remember, 390,000 injuries are caused texting and driving. Those are avoidable casualties and therefore that high number is unacceptable! Music is a wonderful thing and it is of special value in my family. Considering how much time is spent in the car, it is unreasonable to eliminate it, but the volume should never exceed the volume that would be acceptable in a neighborhood, and selecting music/radio station should be done before starting to drive, or only ever done by a passenger. And what’s the rule with friends and company in the car? Grandiose hand gestures and important stories should be left for another time. Arguments should be left until later, and of course, if there are tears involved or an angry pursed lip, then it’s not the time to drive. If someone is half falling asleep, then that is most definitely also not the time to drive. Lastly, eating should be done outside of the car to avoid that extra distractions (which I myself have seen to be a cause of swerving, a risk that is never worth taking). It is not possible to remove every possible distraction from daily driving, but the ones mentioned are just a matter of changing habits and recognizing what it means to be in a motor vehicle. Driving is a responsibility, so we must all hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions in the car. The devastation of a death caused by a car crash is unimaginable. It tears apart families and ruins lives–just look at the news; sadly, the stories from my life that I have shared are not unusual, there are countless others. Most importantly, crashes are almost always preventable. When there is potential to save lives, then it becomes our duty to do so; I am committed to it, and now I ask that you too work to help eliminate distracted drivers on our roads and take responsibility.

Second Place: Michael Bezoian

Distracted driving is a problem far more encompassing than merely texting or talking on the phone. Distracted driving includes any activity that diverts the attention of a driver away from the road. These activities, of course, include talking on the phone or texting while driving, but they also include, but are not limited to, activities such as eating and drinking, conversing with passengers, applying makeup, shaving, adjusting the radio or navigation, and reading. These distractions can be classified into three different but possibly overlapping categories: visual (an activity which takes one’s eyes off the road), manual (an activity which takes one’s hands off the steering wheel), and cognitive (an activity which takes one’s mind off the road).[1] All of the aforementioned examples of distracted driving fit into at least one, if not two or all three, of the categories listed and, the more categories an activity falls into, the more distracting––and dangerous––it is. Given how common the aforementioned activities are, distracted driving is undoubtedly an extremely pervasive problem and its consequences can be deadly. According to a recent study, eighty-seven percent of drivers have engaged in at least one risky behavior while driving within the last thirty days.[2] According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 9% of fatal crashes in 2017 were caused by distractions of some sort.[3] Moreover, the NHTSA found that 3,166 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents involving distracted drivers.[4] The NHTSA also found that 599 “nonoccupants” (that is, pedestrians, bicyclists, and the like) were killed in crashes due to distracted driving. Particularly concerning is that, according to the National Safety Council, the number of distracted driving crashes is said to be underreported.[5] Not only are the number of distracted driving-related fatalities incredibly high, but the number of injuries are astronomically high as well. In 2015, the NHTSA found that nearly 400,000 drivers are injured each year as a result of distracted driving.[6] That distracted drivers could, in theory, reduce these numbers to zero if only they focused on the road is particularly frustrating as this is a problem with an easy solution that goes unsolved. The unfortunate reality is that many of us have engaged in distracted driving at one point or another. Many individuals, despite having had close encounters with death, undoubtedly still engage in distracted driving, if not to the extent that they previously did. I regret to admit that I was among the many who have driven while distracted. In the past I would text and talk on the phone while driving. After nearly getting into a serious accident, I promised myself to never text or talk on the phone while driving. Since then, I have become a far more attentive driver and, if I do get distracted, it is only because I am engaging in a conversation with a passenger. I try to remain as aware of the road as I can while driving and I also try to minimize such conversations to avoid the amount of time I don’t give the road my full, undivided attention. My family and friends, too, are guilty of distracted driving and in the event that they become distracted, I warn them of the dangers of distracted driving and politely tell them to pay attention to the road. In addition, I invite them to warn me if I become distracted while driving. Doing so, I have come to learn, helps significantly as it promotes accountability and introduces an element of “shame” as we all fear admonition from those closest to us. The best approach I can take to convince my loved ones to not partake in distracting activities is three-fold. An approach that uses either statistics or emotional appeals to the exclusion of the other would likely fail not only for my loved ones, but for people in general. Evidently, the approaches that have been taken so far have not been as effective as intended as, according to one study, “over 84% of drivers recognize the danger from cell phone distractions and find it ‘unacceptable’ that drivers text or e-mail while driving. [Yet,] 36% of these same people admit to having read or sent a text message or e-mail while driving in the previous month.”[7] While statistics about distracted driving are impersonal and elicit a “Well, it won’t happen to me!” response, they are still, to some extent, convincing. Among the statistics I would cite, aside from those mentioned above, are that people are just as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit. Additionally, cell phone users are nearly 5.5 times more likely to get into an accident than drivers who are not distracted.[8] I would supplement these statistics by employing emotional appeals by talking about particular instances of distracted driving that resulted in death or gruesome injuries. There are countless stories in the news, nationally and locally, of the horrible fates distracted drivers have faced. The shock value of hearing, in detail, what could happen when individuals fail to pay attention to the road could instill the necessary fear of the dangers that could ensue from engaging in distracted driving. In addition to citing such statistics and telling such stories, I would continue to “enforce” a rule among family members to not drive while distracted. The enforcement of such a rule involves pointing out when a loved one is driving while distracted. Such “shaming” would help establish a system in which individuals are discouraged to engage in distracted driving lest they desire the admonishment of a friend or family member. Distracted driving is a problem that is unfortunately so prevalent that one could reasonably assume that we all know at least one person affected by distracted driving. Sadly, I know two people who engaged in distracted driving and paid dire consequences for doing so. One of my classmates was texting while driving over ninety miles per hour. She lost control of her car, crashed, and died. Another classmate was lucky to survive, but he, too, was driving well above the speed limit while texting. His car crashed into a light pole, he was hospitalized and, even a few years later, he still lacks some of the physical capabilities he once had. Distracted driving, while common amongst all age groups, is particularly prevalent in teenagers. Smartphone technology, despite some of its benefits, has been a detriment to drivers—teenage drivers especially. One study found that 34% of drivers between 16 and 18 years old texted while driving within the last thirty days and that the number nearly doubled to 60% for drivers between 19 and 24 years old.[9] Furthermore, teenagers make up significant chunks of distracted driving deaths.[10] Particularly noteworthy is that more than half of teenagers in one study spoke on the phone with their parents while driving.[11] The good news, though, is that it seems that social pressure has a positive influence on reducing distracted driving in teens. For example, one study by Bridgestone Tires found that 60% of teenage drivers said they texted when driving alone, but only 37% did so when accompanied by a friend.[12] The benefits that smart phones provide to teenagers, such as navigation, are easily outweighed by the disadvantages of engaging in dangerous, and possibly deadly, behavior. There is never a good excuse for distracted driving. It is of paramount importance that drivers pay attention to the road––and this often involves putting away their smartphones. Moreover, ensuring safer driving conditions requires individuals to be active in discouraging distracted driving. This means not only informing the distracted drivers in our lives about the dangers of distracted driving through statistics and anecdotes, but also telling them to pay attention to the road. The solution to distracted driving is something that each of us can play a role in; it’s simple, but it will require diligence and enforcement.

Third Place: Madison Theil

I click ‘next’ on my online driver’s ed course, and I’m brought to yet another video about the dangers of distracted driving. I watch as a crying woman tells me the story of her son, who was killed by a distracted driver two years earlier. I hear her weeping as a picture of her son flashes across my screen. He was only 17 years old, young and excited for his future, only to have his life taken by a driver who simply wasn’t paying attention. I’m moved by her story, but soon after it ends I close my laptop and move on with my day. It would never happen to me.The problem is that it does happen. And despite the stories I’ve heard, I still give in to the temptation of checking a text, switching a playlist, or opening my email while going 65 mph down the freeway. Why can’t I stop and what can I do to prevent my story from becoming like that woman’s story? The human brain has something called the cognitive load or the amount of mental capacity it can employ at one time. Driving a car uses a lot of your limited cognitive load. Adding a distraction like a talkative passenger, the sun in your eyes, or what I believe is the most dangerous, your cell phone takes on even more cognitive load, and makes you a more dangerous driver. Effectively, your cognitive ability overflows while driving distractedly, and there’s no way to bring your full attention to either activity. Studies show that distracted drivers, and especially drivers who text and drive, make more lane changing errors and vary more in their lane position. They are four times more likely to be in a crash than a non distracted driver. Interestingly, a study by the King County Target Zero Task Force showed that 70% of respondents believe distracted driving is a personal threat to them, but 75% of respondents do not believe that it’s likely for themselves to crash their car while driving as a result of distracted driving. Unfortunately, most of us simply don’t believe that we are going to be put into a dangerous situation. If all these statistics are true, why can’t we stop texting and driving? The problem is our brains are addicted. Everytime you turn on your phone, your brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that rewards you for positive behavior or other positive stimuli and encourages you to repeat them. Dopamine in high amounts is as addictive as cocaine or heroin, and high usage causes your brain to form a need to check your phone frequently in order to satisfy your brain’s chemical needs. Once you check your phone while driving the first time, you will have a harder and harder time stopping yourself from looking at it again. Not only is checking your phone extremely addictive, it also slows down your neural processing speed. Every time you look at your phone, another neurotransmitter called GABA is released, which slows down neural processing and causes your reaction time to decrease. GABA in high amounts is extremely dangerous while doing complex tasks. This combination of addiction and slower reaction time is dangerous while driving and will only worsen, unless we do something to stop it. Preventative measures need to be put in place to stop yourself and your family from developing this dangerous addiction. The problem is our addiction is so strong, that it’s hard to break with stories or statistics. One of the most interesting measures I’ve seen taken against this problem gets right to the root of our reward system. It’s an app called “Down for the Count.” It lets you create a campaign where you pledge not to turn on your phone while driving for a specified amount of time. Your friends and family can then sponsor your campaign, so if you reach your goal, you’ll be paid in gift cards or merchandise. The app monitors your progress and records every time you reach for your phone while driving, so there’s no way for you to hide. Besides apps like this one, I think it’s important to have accountability with your family while you are driving. Next time you are in the car with a family member and you see them texting and driving, ask them to stop. Tell them to do the same for you. You could even take it as far as creating a contest to see who can go the longest without reaching for their phone while driving. I don’t want my story to end with a distracted driving crash. Even though distracted driving is a problem, there is hope for us to stop. Instead of closing my laptop after I watch that woman’s story, I have the choice to fix my habits and make the roads safer for myself and the people around me. Giving ourselves accountability and putting down our cell phones will help us keep our eyes on the road, and the lives, ahead of us.

Third Place: Connor Davis

Distracted driving is driving while under any kind of distraction. While this may seem obvious at first, we sometimes forget exactly what a distraction is. A distraction is something that prevents you from being able to fully concentrate, and therefore you cannot give your full attention to what you are trying to do. Everything from texting, to eating, to talking to other people in the car are distractions. People can also be distracted by the mood they are in. Younger people are really bad at attempting to drive while distracted. When I drive with my friends, most of the time they are focused on pretty much everything besides driving the car. They are more concerned with changing the music on their phone, reading and sending texts, or having a conversation with someone in the backseat, that for some reason requires making eye contact. I think this comes from the fact that a lot of younger people think that they are invincible, and that they don’t realize just how much these distractions can affect our driving. According to a 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study 3477 people died and an additional 391,000 were injured in accidents caused by distracted driving. Another statistic from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety states that more than 58 percent of all teen crashes are caused by distracted drivers. If more people were aware of these figures, they would probably be more cautious before they drive distracted. Distracted driving has affected my family personally. Both my sister and I have been rear ended by distracted drivers. The teenage girl that hit my sister was texting and speeding. She caused a three car pile up that required the insurance company to decide that two of the vehicles involved were totaled. My sister was taken to the hospital for back pain and a headache and my parents had to buy a new car. My accident occurred on my way home from school. I was hit by a pregnant lady and her mother. The lady was trying to change lanes and hit my car. When she asked me if I was OK she said she was “so sorry, that she was upset and guessed that she wasn’t paying enough attention.” The car had thousands of dollars worth of repairs and I was a bit sore, but thankfully the accident wasn’t worse and the lady and her baby were both okay. Although the thought of a young person having a phone may be terrifying to some, other people feel it is a necessity. A phone can be very beneficial in certain cases and when used responsibly is a great tool. It can keep us safe and allow us to call for help in the event of an emergency. Another benefit is apps such as Google Maps. Google Maps can give directions and therefore lets a driver focus more on the road than where they are going. Most modern cars having Bluetooth capabilities, which have also further reduced the need to look at your phone to play music or make phone calls. Distracted driving is one of the most dangerous things that most people do every day. Increased awareness needs to be brought to everyone’s attention, not just teenagers. I would recommend that education starts in driving school, where they could teach the dangers of distracted driving. Parents and their teenagers need to discuss appropriate behavior when operating a car and the serious consequences that could happen. They need to make sure that they put their phones away in their backpack or the glove box and that they are never used while driving. Parents need to set a good example and make sure that they are paying attention and not falling into bad habits that will distract them from the road.