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Students create campaign against distracted driving

A group of USF students is trying to send distracted drivers a message: Stop texting.

For an advanced public relations service learning class, eight students are creating a public relations campaign against distracted driving.

At the end of the semester, students will present their campaign to the Tampa Area Safety Council (TASC) for possible adoption, said Melissa Schwartz, who oversees the campaign’s public relations.

If adopted, TASC, a county organization that raises awareness of safety issues, would implement the campaign by incorporating it into the program.

“Our client – TASC – is hoping to raise awareness of its organization, and our assignment is to create an ‘anti-text messaging while driving’ campaign that TASC can choose to implement,” said Schwartz, a senior majoring in public relations.

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Web site, 48 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 67 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds admit to texting while driving.

For their campaign, the students conducted a focus group last month to determine how common it is for students to text while driving. All nine student participants admitted to texting and talking on their cell phones while driving, Schwartz said.

To educate a targeted audience of 15- to 25-year-olds, the campaign will utilize Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, radio public service announcements and bumper stickers, she said.

The students also want to invite victims of major car collisions to speak on campus and share their personal experiences, said Jennifer Woodham, a senior majoring in public relations.

“We are basically in the beginning process as of right now. Nothing is set in stone,” Woodham said.

While there is no law in Florida that bans texting while driving, several bills have been proposed, said Mary Ann Truffle, a safety officer for the Florida Department of Transportation.

“We kill 3,000 people a day in traffic accidents around the world and no one is picketing,” Truffle said. “Less people died of swine flu and it’s an epidemic. Where is the outrage?”

The group and TASC do not discuss the campaign until the students present it, Woodham said.

However, Executive Director of TASC Patty Fernandez said so far, the campaign sounds like something she would be interested in and hopes the campaign will change students’ indifferent outlook on distracted driving.

“Our goal is to attack the issue from the perspective of awareness, as opposed to legislations,” Fernandez said.

During the 2009 Florida legislative session, a bill that would have banned cell phone use while driving on state highways was indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration, according to

The bill, also known as “Heather’s Law,” allowed the use of headsets and hands-free devices and provided exemptions for use in safety or law enforcement situations, according to the Florida Senate Web site.

The bill was named after Heather Hurd, who died in 2008 after a texting truck driver hit her car on Highway 27 in Polk County, according to Hurd was 27.

Heather’s Law was resubmitted for the 2010 legislative session, which begins in March. If the bill passes, it will go into effect July 1.

However, legislation without education is not enough to stop distracted drivers, Truffle said.

“Some people are not convinced until tragedy hits home,” she said.

Additional reporting by Jenna Withrow