By Michele Alperin
About five years ago, Erica Wright, health and drivers education teacher at Bordentown Regional High School, learned about the U Got Brains Champions School Program, which challenges New Jersey high school students and staff to develop campaigns to address teen driving safety.
Wright jumped at the opportunity and immediately got her students on board, working on a music video that focused on the message: “Don’t Text and Drive, Bordentown Wants You Alive.”
That video and another will be part of a “Teen Drivers” program on “Classroom Close-Up,” a show coproduced by the New Jersey Education Association and NJTV. The program, filmed on May 16, will feature a six-minute segment on the Bordentown campaign, including footage from the videos.
“On the news every day we hear about accidents among teens that could be prevented,” Wright says. Although technology has its place, and she says she always encourages students to pair exercise with technology, she adds, “but one thing you don’t want to pair technology with is driving.” Driving is difficult, especially for new drivers, and texting is distracting to everyone.
To introduce the dangers of texting while driving to her students, she usually starts with the two videos.
Wright says the videos were one of the hardest things she’s ever done, but it worked because it was a team effort—students, teachers and police officers. A videographer from Imprint Video of Bordentown also volunteered time.
For the videos, students rewrote the lyrics to popular rap music and then remixed the music to fit the scenes in the videos. A former student, Chris Gortorez, came up with the lyrics and beat that dominate both videos. “He deserves so much credit,” Wright says.
One video opens with a young driver’s texting nearly hitting a child in a crosswalk, and a policeman gives her a ticket for texting while driving. In the second video, a student who is driving tries to send a text, and other students riding in the car stop him.
It is the junior class that runs the campaign. Wright says, “Once you have upperclassmen setting the trend for this, it really catches on.”
This year’s campaign leaders are Kayla Tucker and Ifeoma Eleazu, both Bordentown Regional High School students.
Tucker explains that the focus of the campaign “is to make sure students know the harm of distracted driving, whether it is texting and driving or having too many people in the car. There are so many students and people in the world who get hurt because of distracted driving.”
Central to each year’s campaign is the pledges that students and staff sign, which are then posted in the driving simulator and health rooms. Signers pledge to protect their own lives and those of others by staying off their cell phones while driving; to tell drivers to check their texts later; and to spread the word about the dangers of texting and driving to friends, family, and community members.
The students don’t want the campaign to be too heavy handed. So students running it have used the lively videos, candy, bracelets, bumper stickers and signs to get their message across. “Everyone who signs the pledge gets a lifesaver candy,” says Eleazu. “We kept it as a cute reminder so that it sticks in the back of your head.”
As a new driver, Tucker says, “Signing the pledge and seeing these videos have helped me to see this is a problem. After taking the pledge, it made it really serious that you shouldn’t text and drive.”
Eleazu, also a new driver, agrees. She talks about having fellow students acting as enforcers. Before, if she got a text or noticed a post someone had made while driving, she would say something, but now with enforcement as part of the campaign, she says, “It is not just you telling them, but the whole school is enforcing it.”
Tucker adds that having so many signees “makes the student more comfortable to say ‘I’m not comfortable with you texting and driving.’” And Eleazu says, “It’s not a teacher or the principal, it’s your friend saying it to you.”
Tucker emphasizes that when you call down a friend about being on the phone while driving, you are standing up for both yourself and your friend. She says, “It puts both people in danger.” And the pledge, she continues, “takes away the fear of being the ‘not cool’ friend, the person who has to be the mom or dad in the car. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep everyone alive.”
Eleazu points out that an enforcer doesn’t even have to be in the car. “If you see [that someone is using their phone while driving] on Instagram or Snapchat, you post a comment: ‘What you’re doing isn’t cool; it’s unsafe and can put people in danger.’”
To avoid the temptation, Eleazu suggests that drivers turn on the Do Not Disturb mode as soon as they get in the car. “I put it on, and I don’t hear any vibrations or any notifications to distract me,” Tucker says.
Or, a passenger can hold the driver’s phone. Tucker ntotes that it’s safer for a passenger to reply to an urgent text message.
The campaign leaders also feel it is important to start young. Eleazu says, “I encourage freshmen to sign the campaign pledge so that when they drive or are in a car with family or friends, they can stop them from making the mistake.”
The campaigns have comprised different projects. During the 2012 and 2013, Bordentown Regional High School won the grand prize in the Champions School Program and received driving simulators, donated by the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company. The students created music videos, instituted the Red Ribbon Pledge not to text and drive, held a Physical Education Fun Day (similar to a field day) that joined fun with taking the pledge and putting a thumbprint on a banner titled “Texting Kills,” created an “X the Text” car decal, and developed an iPhone app called. Don’t Text and Drive, Bordentown Wants You Alive (it is currently offline and in development).
Also, as part of a campaign, New Jersey Manufacturers created the D-rive app, the function of which is to assess teen driving. It monitors how students drive. The app measures a driver’s speed, use of blinkers and whether he or she stopped at traffic lights and stop signs. It then issues a report at the end of the trip.
Wright says, “It was really neat because the parents could see how well their child was driving. It was not just that they got home safely, but why they got home safely.” (The app is now offline and under construction.)
Tucker and Eleazu are still soliciting pledges. Just last week they walked table to table around the cafeteria during all the lunch periods, informing students about the dangers of texting and driving. Tucker says, they got 90 percent of those who hadn’t signed to make the pledge.
In addition to her campaign leadership, Eleazu runs track and does debate, Model UN, and the math club. She is also vice president of the student council. Outside of school, she is involved with Junior State of America.
Tucker is junior class president, does 24 hours of community service each quarter with the National Honor Society, is a co-captain of the step team, is on the track team and works in the aftercare program at Peter Muschal Elementary School across the street.
Wright is in her 14th year of teaching. A Ewing native, she ran track and field and majored in exercise science at the College of New Jersey. She met her husband, Kevin, at Bordentown High, where he is a history teacher, and they have been married seven years. Wright, who calls herself a homebody, says they recently moved to Ewing from Westampton.
Wright and her husband have created an interesting “extracurricular” niche for themselves—they take graduated seniors from Bordentown High abroad. This year the students are going to Poland. The choice grew out of Kevin’s Genocide Studies class and the fact that over the last four years he has been earning a master’s degree in genocide studies at Gratz College in Philadelphia.
“Our theme is spread the word,” Wright says. To do this, they have already reached out to elementary schools, and next year they hope to add adults in the Bordentown community.
Wright suggests that the reason some have not signed the pledge is because they thought they needed to be drivers to sign. “Next year that’s one thing we’re going to work on; you don’t have to be a driver—you can be an advocate as a passenger to put down that phone,” she says, noting that they also plan to reach out to elementary schools and adults in the community.
Eleazu sums up why she feels so good about the campaign. “It’s cool to be responsible. It shouldn’t be that ‘Oh, my friend is doing it so I’m going to do it.’ If your friends telling you you need to be careful—something bad could really happen.’”