EDITORIAL: Don’t drive distracted RGV

At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Edinburg campus on Wednesday, AT&T and the Texas Department of Transportation paired up in a valiant effort to try to immerse students in a virtual reality experience to help them realize the dangers of distracted driving, which is out of control in Texas right now.

Those who ventured into the kiosk, which is traveling the region and state as part of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, received sobering information. A six-minute virtual reality video gives in-your-face interviews with victims, distracted drivers and first responders and shows how a car can travel 100 yards in the time it takes to glance down at a one-sentence text message. One driver, who is now in a wheelchair, tells how he used to “sneak texts” while driving, thinking it was no big deal. Now he has no use of his legs.

One wall of this kiosk is lined with keys, all from accidents in which someone died from distracted driving. Another wall lists the names, dates, times and location of distracted driving deaths nationwide.

Linda Garza, 35, of McAllen, stood under the name of her sister, Lisa Marie Solis, 36, who was killed at 1 p.m. on July 28, 2017, in Pharr by a distracted driver.

Solis was the mother of three children, including a toddler, whose vehicle was struck by a distracted driver from behind while exiting a highway ramp, Garza said. The driver also struck four other vehicles, injuring several people.

“I have to bring awareness for her and her fight,” Garza told us. “Anytime you put on makeup in the car; drop your phone in the center console; spill coffee on yourself, look at Facebook, text, or play the radio loud. All that is distracted driving. It only takes a second.”

The Texas Department of Transportation reports that last year distracted driving resulted in 100,687 crashes, 444 deaths and 2,889 serious injuries.

Sadly, too many younger drivers nowadays feel invincible and routinely break our state’s new distracted driving law that took effect on Sept. 1. The law, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017, forbids motorists from reading, writing or sending electronic messages while driving.

Violators face a misdemeanor charge and a fine between $25 to $99, although penalties could be as much as $200 for repeat offenders. And anyone convicted of texting and driving and who causes serious injury or death to others faces a fine of up to $4,000 and one year in jail.

Nevertheless, one in five crashes in Texas still are blamed on distracted driving, TXDOT spokesman Octavio Saenz told us. That is why his agency has paired with AT&T in this venture. “We’re trying to get that empathy — to tell young motorists that distracted driving kills people,” Saenz said. “These are people who had dreams, desires, families and whose lives were cut short by distracted driving.”

We hope this kiosk, as well as other education outreach efforts, will reach this generation of digitally-obsessed drivers and convince them to put down their cellphones while behind the wheel. We also encourage local law enforcement to get tougher and issue more tickets when they see drivers breaking this new law.

We liken this problem to what drunk driving was decades ago before our nation got tough on offenders. It’s time to get brutally tough on distracted drivers and stop them from killing more people.

Because as one driver said in the video about the accident he caused by texting and driving, which killed two people: “I never thought I would ever do something like that to someone else.”

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