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Teens get the message about texting while driving

Colleen Fitzpatrick and Kristen Shevlin signed pledges not to text and drive as North Reading classmates looked on.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Colleen Fitzpatrick and Kristen Shevlin signed pledges not to text and drive as North Reading classmates looked on.

NORTH READING — “Yeah.”

“Four little letters, that’s what killed her,” a teenager says as she shows viewers the text message on her dead sister’s phone. In an auditorium filled with more than 300 high school juniors and seniors, there is an uneasy silence. A few students shift anxiously in their seats, moved by the documentary they’re watching.

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“She had clipped the median. Her truck flipped and she was ejected through the driver’s side door,” the teenager says, tears streaming down her cheeks. “People tell you it’s not your fault, but knowing you were the person she was talking to when she was killed, it’s something you never forget.”

Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone stood in the shadows, waiting for “The Last Text” video to end, his cue to take the podium. When the moment arrived, the North Reading High School students were ready to listen.

“When you make good choices, there’s good consequences; when you make bad choices, there’s bad consequences,” Leone told them. “Distracted driving has got to be one of the worst choices you can make. When you engage in distracted driving, there can be tragic consequences.”

Leone, who has partnered with AT&T to bring the “no texting while driving” message to some 60 high schools across Middlesex County, urged North Reading students to adopt two simple rules for their handheld devices while driving.

“One, put it out of arm’s reach, and two, do not pick it up while the car’s moving,” Leone said. “If you follow those two rules, we won’t have a problem.”

Middlesex County District Attorney Gerard T. Leone addressed North Reading High School students on the dangers of texting and driving.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Middlesex County District Attorney Gerard T. Leone addressed North Reading High School students on the dangers of texting and driving.

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He is scheduled to deliver the same message at Burlington High on Wednesday. The program, launched in June 2011 — four months after a Haverhill teenager was charged with texting while driving in a crash that killed a 55-year-old New Hampshire man — is sponsored by the district attorney’s office and its private, nonprofit partner, Middlesex Partnerships for Youth,  in collaboration with AT&T.

The “It Can Wait” program aims to educate inexperienced teen drivers about the dangers of texting and driving. According to the US Department of Transportation, of the 5,500 people killed in 2010 due to distracted driving, the largest proportion of fatalities occurred among young people under the age of 20.  

A 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute  shows that those who text and drive are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, a sobering statistic when coupled with the results of a June 2012 state Department of Public Health survey that found 42 percent of Massachusetts high school students who drive admit to texting while behind the wheel.

According to prosecutors, the Haverhill teen, Aaron Deveau, was texting while driving on Feb. 20, 2011. His vehicle crossed the center line and collided head-on with a Toyota Corolla operated by Donald Bowley Jr., who died three weeks later from his injuries. Bowley’s girlfriend suffered serious injuries. A Haverhill District Court jury convicted Deveau, now 18, of motor vehicle homicide, and he was sentenced to a year in jail and had his driver’s license suspended for 15 years. He also was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.

Deveau was the first person in Massachusetts to be convicted of causing a fatal accident while texting. Similar real-life tragedies are featured in AT&T’s 10-minute documentary, which begins and ends with the story of Mariah West, a Missouri teenager who died after her car crashed into a bridge. She was texting while driving.

“The first thing I noticed about her was her shoes, lying in the roadway in a large pool of blood,” says Missouri State Trooper Grant Hendricks in the video. “I thought, this is a young girl and at that point was when I noticed her cap and gown was in her car. She was going to graduate the next day. It was really a horrific scene, all because of a senseless text message. It’s just sad.”

Another story featured in the documentary is a 17-year-old from Highlands Ranch, Colo., who pleaded guilty in February 2006 to careless driving causing death. The high school senior had been texting while behind the wheel and killed a 63-year-old bicyclist.

“There are no words to describe the level of grief, the level of depression, and self-hatred,” the young man says. “I sent one meaningless stupid text — “lol” — and killed a man.”

Another young man is shown working with a physical therapist at a rehabilitation hospital. He is slowly learning to master daily chores that once were simple. His life changed in the span of 3 seconds. He was a passenger in a car that struck a tree when the driver looked away from the road, distracted by a text message. He can no longer work, go for walks, or drive a car. Buttoning a shirt is a challenge.

“All this I cannot do anymore because they had to text,” he explains, holding a cellphone with the text message that altered his life on June 4, 2009: “where r.” The text ends abruptly without the “u.,” interrupted by the crash.

“It’s compelling and sad, right?” Leone asked, urging the North Reading students to reflect on the documentary. “We don’t want that to be any of you. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you’re 16, or 18, and you’re invincible. I know you want instant gratification, instant communication. But it can wait. These are avoidable tragedies.”

North Reading principal Jon Bernard invited the students to sign a pledge, “I know the dangers and I pledge not to text & drive.”

Dozens of students waited in line to sign it.

“If I’m with someone who’s driving and gets a text, I offer to take the phone and answer it for them,” said Mike Vittiglio, 18, a senior.

“And if I know a friend is driving, I won’t text them,” added Elise Makowski, 17, also a senior. The video, she said, is a “powerful reminder of what can happen” when drivers take their eyes off the road.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.

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