South

Bella English

Making meaningful a senseless death

Merritt Levitan on the cycling trip before she died.
Overland
Merritt Levitan on the cycling trip before she died.

Last summer, when Merritt Levitan was killed on a group cross-country bicycle trip by a driver who had been on his cellphone, her friends wanted to make something meaningful of her senseless death. Merritt was 18 when she died on July 3, a month after she graduated from Milton Academy. She was preparing to attend Colgate University in the fall.

She was far from home, in rural Arkansas, when she and six other bicyclists were hit by a car driven by Teagan Ross Martin, 21. The others were injured, some seriously. They were among 13 cyclists on a tour led by Overland, a summer camps program based in Williamstown, Mass. Merritt had been excited about the trip, and had trained hard for it.

Martin has pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide, careless and prohibited driving, and 13 counts related to overtaking a bicycle. “It was a long, straight road for miles and miles and miles,” says Merritt’s father, Richard. “It was a perfectly clear day. And there was a lot going on in his phone seconds before the accident.”

Advertisement

Merritt’s friends have come up with a perfect way to honor her memory. They’ve started a campaign called “TextLess Live More” to discourage excessive cellphone use. “Merritt always knew how to do the right things for her friends, and to be there,” says Emmie Atwood, a senior who is from Milton. “Most of all, she always knew how to listen.”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Listening is an endangered art in these high-tech days, and young people who grew up wireless are vulnerable, with texting and Facebook as their copilots. “Believe me, I’m 17 and I love my phone,” says Emmie. “Turning it off is difficult. But we need to know how to have control over our phones.”

But guess what? According to an AT&T survey, more adults than teenagers admit to texting while driving, according to a USA Today story posted on TextLess Live More’s Facebook page. It’s about 50 percent adults to 43 percent teens. The article reported that each day an average of nine people are killed and more than 1,060 injured in crashes caused by distracted driving, according to the national Centers for Disease Control.

Merritt’s friends, who founded TextLess Live More in October, have distributed light blue rubber bracelets — Merritt’s favorite color — that say “TextLess Live More for Merritt” to fellow students at Milton Academy and have sent them to high schools and colleges around the country with kits explaining their mission.

On the Milton campus, they’ve put up posters and named certain days as “text less” days. On those days, students and faculty who sign a pledge agree to turn off their phones at 8 a.m. and keep them off until 5:30 p.m. There’s to be no texting, no gaming, no checking the time. On the first Textless day, in October, 500 signed up, and the results were obvious.

Advertisement

Student organizers heard about cases when a cellphone was turned on, and others would take them to task.

“We want to change behavior,” says Emmie. “We want people to start texting less in their daily lives.”

At a recent upper-school assembly at Milton, the TextLessers talked about their program with other students, and introduced Merritt’s father. After Merritt died, Richard Levitan, his wife, Anna, and Merritt’s younger sister and brother moved to St. Simons, an island off the coast of Georgia, where Anna Levitan grew up.

The Levitans started Merritt’s Way Fund at the Boston Foundation to work with nonprofit youth organizations for youngsters to “lead, serve, explore values, overcome obstacles, and achieve their dreams, no matter how difficult or seemingly impossible,” according to the website, merritsway.org. It is this fund that has helped buy the bracelets and other materials for the TextLess campaign, including bumper stickers and stickers to put on the backs of cellphones.

At the assembly, Levitan hugged his daughter’s friends and thanked them for their actions. “The message of their campaign is to shut your phone down when you are with your friends, so you can really be present,” he said. “Merritt was always present. She had this gift where she connected. You knew she was with you when she was with you.”

Advertisement

Merritt was a varsity ski team member and cocaptain of the tennis team. As a member of the Outdoor Program at Milton Academy, she hiked, kayaked, and canoed. She was news manager of a campus newspaper and a talented student. By all accounts, she was excited about the bicycling trip and had trained for it.

Rich Levitan urged the assembly of students to take the TextLess campaign seriously. “We lost Merritt to a young man who was distracted,” he said. “If this campaign can help this community and a much larger community realize how dangerous it is to be looking at your phone, switching the music, talking on the phone in the car, it will be hugely important.”

Already, TextLess days have spread to other area prep schools and high schools in half a dozen other states, as well as colleges, including Hamilton, Colgate, Harvard, Brandeis, Stonehill, and Lesley.

“I feel like people are on the phone a lot while driving, and don’t realize it,” says Erika Lamere, a junior from Weston and one of the TextLess organizers. “It’s just a habit; people are always checking their phone.”

The group has orchestrated a TextLess day each month — the next one is Monday, Dec. 16 — with hopes of organizing them more often. It has also shown classmate Werner Herzog’s haunting documentary about distracted driving, “From One Second to the Next.” The documentary, incidentally, was produced by George Sholley, a 27-year-old Milton native, and features both victims and perpetrators of distracted driving.

Rich Levitan says his daughter would be thrilled at the effort. “We can together, with Merritt working through us, try to make a change,” he told the students. “Let’s develop muscle memory and shut off our phones when you get in the car, or throw them in the trunk.”

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.