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Texting and Driving: We All Have to Do Better

Texting and driving is unsafe and deadly. No one knows this better than Donna Holdiness.

In 2004, her son caused a fatal car accident when he was texting and driving. He survived, but two others died. Eight years later, texting and driving claimed the life of her husband, Dr. Gary Holdiness, a cyclist whom a 17-year-old driver plowed into during a lengthy text conversation with his girlfriend.

The tragedies put this Mississippi mother and widow on both sides of the all-too-frequent deadly consequences of texting and driving.

"There are many other wives and mothers who have lost someone," Holdiness, who works on behalf of safer roads through a fund she established in her husband's name, said. Her story is that of the dangerous choices drivers are making, too. "My son survived, but killed two other people in the car with him. I've been that mother. I know that side."

RELATED: No. 1 Killer of Teens Totally Preventable

A National Safety Council report found that more than one in four traffic accidents involves a cell phone.

At least five percent of crashes are due to texting and driving, and more than 20 percent involve handheld or hands-free cellphones.

That's thousands of deaths, all preventable.

Thanks to powerful PSAs and municipal and state laws levying huge fines for drivers who text, it's universally acknowledged that texting and driving is dangerous for the driver, any passengers and others on the road.

And yet, it's still happening.

Mom.me recently surveyed hundreds of mothers about their texting and driving habits, as a part of National Distracted Driving month in April. A random sampling from across the country found that only third of moms put their phones away while driving. The rest of the time? We're reading and sending text messages while behind the wheel.

Almost 35 percent who answered the survey said they text while driving. Almost 65 percent make phone calls while driving. More than half use their phones as a GPS. More than 15 percent are checking email while the cruise down the street. And a brave 10 percent admitted that they're on social media during their commutes.

With stats like that, we moms aren't setting the best examples for our kids, whether or not we're doing it in front of them. So how can we raise teens who don't do as we do? How do we convince ourselves to put down the phone when we get behind the wheel?

Steve Babcock of Boulder, Colo., a father, launched a viral campaign encouraging drivers who text to paint their thumbnails red. Like a string tied around your finger, Babcock says the Red Thumb Reminder helps drivers to break the bad habit. Babcock had once been an egregiously distracted driving offender, he writes on his campaign's website. But his shiny red nail has reminded him to put down the phone.

The unusual markings serve, too, as a conversation-starter for him and a way of setting a better example for his 9-year-old daughter, who will one day be a driver. Distracted driving goes beyond texting. It's also about email, catching up on Words With Friends and posting to Instagram, while the car hurtles down the road. All of it is dangerous for anyone in the driver's seat. It is especially so for teens.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated more than 3,000 teen deaths resulted from accidents related to distracted driving.

Distracted driving is the new DUI

That's more than the number of teens who died from drunk driving accidents. Parents know to teach teens not to drink and drive. The statistics show they also need to find a way to keep them from off their phones once the key is in the ignition.

Telecom giant Sprint developed a phone app that locks out the phone if the car moves faster then 10 miles per hour. The Sprint Drive First campaign also alerts the person sending a text that the recipient is driving.

Does the familiar ping of a new text end the temptation to check on the phone? Does knowing the statistical risk change teen behaviors? What might a more effective tool might look like?

"Everyone knows somebody by now, even if it's two or three steps removed, who's been affected by this," Babcock said. "We all know it's bad." He says people need something right that moment to remind them. "So when I pick up my phone and I see the red thumb, I think, 'Oh yeah. I need to put the phone down.'"

Eventually, you realize texting was just a habit, Babcock says, and after you break the habit, you no longer have the urge. "We know there's a horrible consequence to distracted driving, but we want to be almost jovial because we think we found a solution and want to focus on the positive," the Red Thumb Reminder founder said.

Joani Geltman, author of "The Survival Guide to Parenting Teens," encourages parents to help teens establish good habits well before their teens apply for a learner's permit.

"The only way people change behavior is through repetition," Geltman writes. "With something like texting and driving, kids first have to form the association of being in a car and not being on the phone."

Geltman recommends that the year before a teen will get her license, ban cellphones from the front seat of the car—even the passenger's seat. "When they sit in the front seat with you, they cannot use their phone." This way, teens develop the association of being in the car without a phone.

"If they choose to sit in the back seat and use their phone, that's fine," she says, but if they're motivated to get their license, parents need to explain sitting up front with no phone is part of the practice. Without enough practice, parents can remain firm and not permit the child to get his license.

[I]f [teens are] motivated to get their license, parents need to explain sitting up front with no phone is part of the practice.

Geltman recommends parents establish a ritual for storing the phone when getting in the car. Does it go in the glove box or in a backpack? She encourages parents to model this behavior and set their phones aside while driving. Doing the same thing every time will build a strong habit that lessens the temptation to use the phone while driving.

And teens are getting the message. A recent study found that, while too many teens still text and drive, adults are the worst perpetrators of all. More than 40 percent of adults from 25 to 39 years old admitted to texting and driving frequently. Compare that to 20 percent of teens who said they did.

YA author Lorie Ann Grover embeds a distracted driving message in her recent novel "Hit." Grover wrote the novel after a texting driver hit her daughter's friend, who was crossing the street. The real-life girl's injuries were severe, but she survived and made a full recovery.

Writing about the dangers of texting and driving in a story aimed at teen readers is another way of reaching teens, Grover said. "It's so much easier, more palatable, when you can relate to a story or enter a character and see the mistake and then learn from it.

"We all probably feel invincible at some time, but the story allows us to take our guard down and imagine [having an accident] could happen to us if it happened to this 21-year-old hot guy in his Mustang." Grover says through fiction, she can share a truth, and make it accessible without being didactic."

RELATED: 4 Easy Ways to Keep Kids Safe

It's up to parents to model safe driving habits and this includes when to text in a moving vehicle: never. Warning teens is one thing; showing them you won't tolerate it is another.

"I don't want any other mother to get that phone call ever," Holdiness said. "There are consequences and, as parents, we have to say, 'Look, this can happen. If you're caught texting and driving, I will take the cell phone.'"

"Distracted driving is the new DUI," she says. "We just have learn how to handle it. We are making a difference, but it's a slow-go. And that's OK, because we're impacting lives."

Images by Daniel Montoya

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