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Nineteen-year-old Holly Stokesbary just finished her freshman year at Jacksonville State University, but she has never forgotten what it felt like when she was a sophomore in high school, and a young lady — a senior at her high school — died because she was distracted by her cell phone while driving. “Seeing [the] effect it had on the people around her, and in her mom’s words, she did something dumb and preventable — and it caused all this hurt in the world around her. That happening right after I learned to drive really drove the point home,” says Holly.

That’s why Holly makes a point to always keep her phone in the side compartment while she’s driving. It’s one of the lessons her mom, Jennifer Stokesbary, spends her days teaching Holly and other teens as the Child Passenger Safety Program Manager at Children’s of Alabama. “We focus on injury prevention and education, and we go into the schools to talk to the kids,” Jennifer says of the program. “We have driving simulators — they simulate having the kids use their phone while driving, and they’re meant to steer the car with a phone in one hand and attempt to safely arrive — sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t.

Teen texting while driving

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Data Loss Institute, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States is nearly three times the rate for drivers ages 20 and over. Source

According to Jennifer, one of the most powerful parts of the presentation is always when the mother of the girl who was killed talks to the teens at these events. “This child’s mom is now a speaker at these teen driving events we conduct — she comes and brings a portrait of her child in her cap and gown. The picture was taken that same day — the girl went to school, had cap and gown pictures made, left school, and was driving home when she picked up her phone to send a Snapchat, and she ended up colliding with an 18-wheeler and was killed instantly,” Jennifer says.

There are also nurses and a trauma coordinator taking part in these safe driving presentations. “They bring in teams of EMTs with an ambulance and a stretcher and get a kid to volunteer from the audience and have the kid get on the stretcher and simulate as if they’re going to transport them, making up a scenario as they go along,” explains Jennifer. She says it looks so real and the description is always so detailed and graphic that students often have intense reactions. “They don’t sugarcoat it, and I’ve seen kids’ eyes get really big when they hear what’s going to happen.”

Woman who is not practicing safe teen driving

Jennifer Stokesbary, Child Passenger Safety Program Manager at Children’s of Alabama, says one key safety move all drivers should take is to store their phone in their console or the backseat to keep it out of reach. The best thing parents can do, though, is to lead by example.

Jennifer offers these three practical tips for parents who may have teens getting ready to get behind the wheel this summer:

1. Parents should model the behavior they want kids to use when they drive. If they see you with your phone in your hand when they get in the car, they’re going to pick up their phone as well.

If your kids see you texting and driving — or using social media or other apps — they’ll think it’s okay to do the same. Even taking a phone call can be dangerous because when you’re on a call, you’re thinking about the call, and your brain is trying to do two things at once.

2. Put your phone in your console or the backseat — somewhere where it’s not easily accessible. If it’s out, you’re going to be tempted to grab it. 

3. Newer cars have Bluetooth systems, but it’s best to even avoid phone calls on Bluetooth, if possible. You’re not handling the phone, but again, even if you’re not holding the phone, your brain is still trying to do two things at once to carry on a conversation while driving.

Jennifer adds, “I’ve told kids before that the internet isn’t going anywhere. Whatever is coming into your phone — text messages, TikToks, alerts — they are all still going to be there when you get where you’re going. It’s not critical to respond while you’re driving. If it’s that important, pull over. Phones are designed to hang on to the information until we address it.”

This article is sponsored by Children’s of Alabama.

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