Robert Rubino and his daughter, Emily Rubino, a junior at Robbinsville High School, take a driving simulation at the Save Your Teen Driver program held in February at Robbinsville High.

Emily Rubino is driving with her learner’s permit.

Between the 16-year-old and her accompanying parent rests her phone.

“I am tempted to want to touch it when I see something flash out of the corner of my eye,” Rubino said. “When I’m by myself, I’m going to probably put it somewhere in the back or in the pouch.”

The Robbinsville High School junior just received the aforementioned pouch to store her phone while attending the Save Your Teen Driver program in February. The Robbinsville Education Association and Robbinsville High School PTSA sponsored the filled-to-capacity program.

“Everyone who attended received a Sack Your Phone sack, which helps drivers make a conscious effort to put away their phones and keep them away,” said Debi Bella, the head of the REA and a social studies teacher at Robbinsville High School. “You have to take it apart to get your phone.”

Rubino attended with her father, Robert. Program founder Bob Ragazzo spoke to attendees about safe driving and outlined ways drivers can be safer. After his pointers, participants took a 20-minute computer generated driving simulation to assess driving skills. It put participants in real-life scenarios and scored their responses.

“My dad did better than me,” Rubino said, who added she found the program helpful.

Robbinsville was the first school in Mercer County to use the program. The response was encouraging, and organizers felt it showed a need for the program. They liked that students attended with parents, not just friends.

“Distracted driving is a huge issue,” Bella said. “It’s the new issue. It’s not drunk driving anymore; it’s distracted driving.”

The National Safety Council has designated April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Police departments around the state will be cracking down on distracted driving, targeting motorists who engage in dangerous behaviors such as talking on hand-held cell phones and sending text messages while driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2014 alone, 3,179 people were killed in distracted driving crashes and an estimated 431,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. In a recent survey conducted by the FDU PublicMind Poll for the Division of Highway Traffic Safety, 67 percent of respondents said they “very often” see people driving and talking on a hand held cell phone, while 42 percent of respondents said they see drivers texting very often.

Rubino, like all Robbinsville High students, is well aware of the dangers of distracted driving. The issue became more acute for the entire Robbinsville community when beloved superintendent Steve Mayer was killed by a distracted driver, a student from Robbinsville High, while jogging on Robbinsville-Edinburg Road in the early morning on April 19, 2016.

“I would be in class and he’d come in and say hi,” Rubino said. “He was always nice and would say hi to me in the hallway. I’m friends with his son. It was sad.”

Prosecutors alleged that the driver had been using a phone at the time of the accident, and the driver received three years of probation, two years of loss of license and 200 hours of community service for careless driving and leaving the scene of a fatal crash.

“That was really bad,” Rubino said. “Hopefully people are actually paying attention to what they’re doing. When I’m on the road, I try to be careful to do the right thing. It’s scary.”

The National Safety Council estimates 20 percent of the 1.1 million accidents in 2013 involved talking on cell phones, with another 6 percent or more accidents involving text messaging. More than a quarter of all accidents involve using a phone while driving.

‘I do think [Mayer’s death] did wake the community up… It’s not just their driving. They’re taking their time. They’re appreciating life more. They’re seeing the beauty in everything.’

Rubino is hopeful that she will get her license in August. She has friends that are driving already.

“My friends are good,” she said. “I never see them on their phone when they’re driving. If they were, I’d say, ‘Get off your phone.’”

Long before Mayer was killed, Robbinsville was addressing the issue of distracted driving. The school’s chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions began looking at it in 2013 when they first participated in the Brain Injury Alliance’s U Got Brains Champion Schools Teen Safe Driving Program.

“Our students really wanted to do texting and driving because a lot of things were changing in the legislation that aligned with the campaign they were thinking of doing,” said Jennifer Allessio, Robbinsville SADD advisor and a chemistry teacher at the high school. “They picked texting and driving the very first year we started participating with the Brain Injury Alliance program. Previously, we hadn’t done anything with texting and driving.”

In 2014-15, Robbinsville’s SADD took action. They proposed legislation for a new bill that would put a “U Text, U Drive, U Pay” reminder on the inspection sticker on vehicle windshields. Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) was a primary sponsor of it.

“The premise behind the bill is we want a sticker in the window behind your inspection sticker to remind people to put their phones down,” Allessio said. “They had done this with the seat belt laws, and there’s some really good evidence out there that says when they started putting seat belt reminders on the stickers that seat belt use rose upwards of 91 percent in New Jersey. We thought if people had a visual reminder to not use their phone when they’re behind the wheel, that we’d see the same kind of effect happen with more people putting their phone down like more people wore their seat belts. We’re more about the prevention.”

Robbinsville residents haven’t forgotten the tragic consequences of distracted driving. Mayer’s loss was a painful reminder.

“I think it’s been more reinforced since it happened,” Rubino said. “Just because it happened once doesn’t mean it can’t happen again.”

She thinks the inspection sticker reminders are a good idea.

“When your parents are in the car, it makes you not look at your phone when you’re driving,” she said. “They’re not going to be there all the time, so I need to focus on not doing that. I think it’ll help. If something pops up, but there’s something right there in front of you saying don’t do it, it’ll help me not do it.”

The original bill did not make it through the full legislative cycle in 2015, but it was reintroduced as bill A-218. It passed through the Assembly Committee of Transportation and Independent Authorities in December 2016.

“It is waiting for the Assembly speaker to post the bill before the entire Assembly,” said Elizabeth Meyers, DeAngelo’s chief of staff. “Once that happens, and we’re hoping that happens soon, it would go over to the Senate side and go through the process in their house. We are currently looking for a Senate sponsor on the bill that would help expedite the process.”

Robbinsville students from SADD testified in front of the Assembly for the original bill, then known as A3359, two years ago. Those students have since graduated, and current SADD members did not have enough notice to do so again in December, so Allessio went on their behalf.

“Everyone who texts and drives I’m sure has heard it’s not a safe thing to be doing,” Allessio said. “If there’s a visual to remind them in the moment, that was our goal—put something in the car.”

Robbinsville is waiting to hear if the bill will be advanced in the legislative cycle for consideration this year.

“We haven’t heard from anybody opposed to the bill, so that’s usually that’s a pretty good sign,” Meyers said. “It’s not like anybody has come to us and said they have a problem. It’s just a matter of timing and the schedule. We spent some time educating other members where the bill came from. That does often prove beneficial that you have a constituent group to show this is where the bill came from. People tend to appreciate constituent activity.”

SADD, meanwhile, has broadened its stance to emphasize more than preventing texting and driving. They have replaced last year’s slogan of “W8 2 TXT” with a new one: “Drive Like A Raven.”

“It focuses on all the ways to be a good driver, not just don’t text and drive,” Allessio said. “It’s also, wear your seatbelt, know the GDL (Graduated Driver License) requirements and restrictions.

“We really wanted to make sure people weren’t just seeing the texting and driving,” she added. “Too many people were thinking that we were doing the campaign in response to the accident. We wanted to make it as clear as possible that we really want everyone to be a safe driver. We’ve been wanting this for the past few years.”

Each letter in “Raven” comes from a word that SADD believes should describe every driver. The R is from careful, the A is from educated, the V is from observant, the E is from alert and the N is from responsible. SADD will highlight the importance of each characteristic during activities it holds throughout the year. SADD was scheduled to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, where they were to hand out more educational information to the community, and at school will operate a station for Senior Safety and Awareness Day in May. They are also working on a ride share proposal or a way to bring back late busing for students in activities to limit overcrowded vehicles, steps that fit their Drive Like A Raven campaign.
“We wanted it to be more encompassing of safe driving practices,” Allessio said. “One of those practices being don’t succumb to distractions behind the wheel.”

SADD has kept a consistent message of safe driving from its inception, and since Mayer’s death, there have been changes in Robbinsville.

“I think everyone is a little more cautious,” Allessio said. “We don’t see as many parents dropping off their kids speeding through the parking lot. You don’t see kids piling into one vehicle as much anymore. They’re really thinking about their own actions and making sure that they follow the law and don’t do things that could put themselves or others in harm. It was an unfortunate accident, and of course we would rather not have lost a beloved member of our community for people to learn something from the accident. I do think it did wake the community up. Everyone is going a little slower when they come to school. It’s not just their driving. They’re taking their time. They’re appreciating life more. They’re seeing the beauty in everything.”