In his last presentation of the six-year-running partnership between the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office and the “It Can Wait” campaign from AT&T, it was fitting that Attorney General Peter Kilmartin was speaking in front of a crowd of more than 400 Cranston East senior Thunderbolts.
It was in the same auditorium six years ago that Kilmartin began his advocacy to end texting and driving and other forms of cell phone related distracted driving in the state, and 99 presentations later he found himself coming full circle with a brand new generation of new drivers and soon-to-be drivers who are taking to roadways with more potential distractions at their fingertips than ever before.
“The reality is I can guarantee you that, just like every single person in this room, you didn’t wake up this morning and say, ‘I think I’ll get killed today. I think I’ll text and drive and kill a man today. I think I’ll text and drive and make my best friend crippled for life.’ Nobody thinks like that. What we wake up thinking is ‘it can’t happen to me.’ We’re all guilty of that,” he said. “The reality is it can happen to us.”
That message is at the crux of the short documentary produced by AT&T that has been played to millions of high school students across the country, and at every high school in Rhode Island (some more than once) – a simple text can cost you your life, or cost someone else theirs. It’s a message Kilmartin has found worthy of driving home 100 times.
The documentary “The Last Text,” follows the story of three people who were forever changed by a distracted driver paying more attention to a cell phone than the road ahead of them – a young teenage girl just days from graduation who was killed checking a message from her sister; a young teenage boy who killed a cyclist while distracted by his phone; and a young teenage boy who was permanently handicapped and suffered brain damage when his friend drove distracted into a tree at high speeds.
“It never gets any easier, and it won’t get any easier,” says a police officer in the video who responded to the teenage girl as she was lying deceased in a culvert off the road. “What is worth losing your life over? That text message?”
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung personally knows all too well the brutal reality of such a tragedy. Although he wasn’t impaired by alcohol or other illicit substances or driving distracted, an accident that he was involved in while he was just 18 years old nevertheless resulted in the death of the person he collided with.
“This is something I have lived with for 40 years of my life,” Fung said to a respectfully silent crowd of students. “It’s something that’s not easy to talk about. I don’t want any of you, or your families or your friends to ever have to live with consequences that I have to live with every single day of my life.”
Fung said he was proud to be among the first of elected officials in Rhode Island to take the pledge to never text while driving back when Kilmartin first came to Cranston East in 2012, and would proudly reiterate the pledge again in 2018.
Cranston Police Chief Colonel Michael Winquist told the student audience that to send a text message normally takes about five seconds. Traveling at 35 miles per hour, in five seconds you will have traveled nearly the length of a football field.
“I ask you, would you drive blindfolded 225 feet on a busy roadway and think that’s a safe behavior?” he said. “But that’s the reality of texting and driving.”
Winquist stressed that texting and driving and talking on the phone while driving without a hands-free implementation such as Bluetooth are against the law, and that for those under 18, and use of a phone at all, even hands-free, is a punishable offense – normally a fine or perhaps the loss or suspension of your license. However, these punishments are meaningless in the grand scheme of possibilities.
“The reality is it’s not the fine, it’s not the loss of license, it could be the loss of a life. And that consequence is something that, as the mayor said, is something that will be with you for the rest of your life,” Winquist said. “The one thing we hate worse than having to issue a ticket is to go to your home and tell your loved ones that you were seriously injured or killed. That’s the worst part of a police officer’s job.”
Winquist urged those affected by the message, and those who agree to take the pledge, to spread the message to family and friends – as hearing the message from a loved one will likely resonate more than hearing it from an authority figure or elected official.
For Kilmartin, the subject all boils down to making choices. He joked that he doesn’t have a choice to go to work, or to take out his tiny Yorkie when it has to go to the bathroom – but that he and everyone else has the choice to make good or bad decisions in many different facets of life.
“We have the choice to take the cell phone and give it to your passenger and say, ‘Here, you answer it for me.’ We have the choice to turn the cell phone off while we’re driving or putting it in the glove compartment or in a pocket book or in the back seat,” he said. “We have the choice to say to somebody who is driving, ‘Please don’t text and drive. I care about your life, I care about my life.’”
However, the individual who perhaps left the most visible impact on the students was Sergeant Gregory Cunningham from the Rhode Island State Police. Cunningham has attended about 75 of the presentations, and utilizes a high energy storytelling style to grasp attention and not let go, all while relating back to the main purpose of the event.
He told a story of being in charge of a SWAT situation where a team of police were moving in on a position where a suspect inside seemingly had a gun – however it couldn’t be verified as the window blinds were closed. As the police moved closer, Cunningham was asked to make a rapid decision from his sniper team as to whether or not they should take their shot and eliminate the potential threat. Thankfully, he said, they were able to identify he didn’t have a gun and the situation de-escalated.
“That was truly, in my almost 25 years of law enforcement, the only time I can think of where I needed to make an absolutely split-second decision. Do I authorize my sniper to shoot and take out another human being?” he said. “That is literally the only time I can think of that an absolutely crucial, literally life or death decision hinged upon me relaying information in a split second.”
Of course, this story relates to the relative unimportance of any text message conversation, and that no matter what is being discussed, it can wait until one or both individuals are no longer behind the wheel of a “3,000-pound weapon,” as Cunningham put it.
His most crowd-pleasing story was a 10-minute epic recalling a time he was a few years out of the academy and had the opportunity to join in a high-speed pursuit of a suspect in Hope Valley. He pushed his old cruiser to the max – sparing no details on just how badly he’d always wanted to be part of such a chase – and got in a position where he could potentially be the lead car trying to apprehend the suspect. He approached a U-turn in the road where he could achieve the position at a high rate of speed.
“I have got my blinders on. There is nothing else on Earth I see but getting around this turn and getting the bad guy,” he said as students leaned forward with captivated attention. “Coming into the turn, I hit the brakes – the anti-lock brakes fail. The tires lock up. I start to slide on the sand. Wheels turned to the left, but I am going straight, straight at this gigantic sign – this aluminum pole.”
Cunningham smashed into the pole, slightly injuring himself and his partner (who was in field training at the time) and totaling the police vehicle. He said the moment drove home to him the dangers of being distracted behind the wheel – whether the distraction comes from a text message, social media or being blind to the dangers of a situation by some other external or internal factor.
“It came to me – what is the sense? What is the point of sending some silly-ass text message that truly is going to have zero impact?” he said. “There is none.”
The message from law enforcement, at its core, is simple. Driving with excessive speed, driving while impaired in any way, driving while distracted or driving without a seatbelt are all proven bad choices that can – and do – result in innocent people losing their lives or being horrifically injured and forever altered. The hope from this campaign as launched six years ago and as it remains today, is that it will inspire young people to think about these choices seriously, before those choices turn into regrets.
“We will never prove the accident we prevented, but we can guarantee you that if you practice these safe driving practices…make the choice to do the simple things, you will live long and happy lives and have a great graduation,” Kilmartin said. “That’s what we want, and that’s what we ask of you.”
According to Patricia Jacobs, President of AT&T New England, who was in attendance at the event, in 2018 nearly nine out of 10 people admitted to using their smartphones while driving at some point in their lives. She got choked up when thanking Kilmartin for the unparalleled work he had championed with their program since 2012.
“I do get emotional when I talk about this because many lives have been saved,” Jacobs said. “There are kids that have gone to their proms and graduated, and parents who have been there to celebrate with them because of your great work.” She presented Kilmartin with the program’s Champion Award, and Kilmartin received Challenge Coins from Fung and Winquist as well. The presentation will be his last as his term as Attorney General will expire in January.