On Monday, four River Falls High School students found themselves in the hot seat, trying to drive and use their smartphones without crashing, while an entire auditorium of their peers looked on.
The students volunteered to take part in a distracted driving simulation that was part of an "It Can Wait" event at RFHS. The volunteers demonstrated how much distracted driving can affect one's driving. Though not all students crashed while using their smartphones, there were several near misses.
Sophomores through seniors - most of the school's student driving population - attended the event, according to Associate Principal Nic Been.
High school staff try to have one large driving safety event for students each year, usually before prom.
So, this fall, when Been and school liaison officer Chris Gottfredsen were contacted by the organizers of "It Can Wait," they responded right away, Been said.
"It Can Wait" is an AT&T campaign launched in 2010 to encourage teens (and others) to pledge not to use smartphones while driving.
Been said he and Gottfredsen were contacted by a collaborative group including AT&T, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, State Trooper Association, and AAA.
Monday's event started with a welcome from Been, and included an "It Can Wait" video that showed students ways that accidents caused by drivers being distracted by text messages had affected people's lives, including drivers dying, a driver hitting and killing a pedestrian, severe long-term injuries and more.
Speakers included State Sen. Patty Schachtner, Gottfredsen, State Trooper Brandon Gray, Pierce County Deputy Sheriff Bruce Von Haden and AAA representative Nick Jarmusz.
All encouraged the students to put their phones in a place they won't be able to access them while driving, or have a friend answer messages for them, so they can focus on the road.
Schachtner, who is also the St. Croix County Medical Examiner, said there is "nothing worse" than being called to an accident and knowing it was preventable, due to cell phone use.
She challenged students to take the "It Can Wait" pledge.
"Your overall safety is far more valuable to us than that text message or that Google search," she told students.
Gray also encouraged students to turn off or silence their phones, or download an app that helps prevent distracted driving.
Gottfredsen said distracted driving causes a "huge majority" of accidents in River Falls. He said cell phones require mental and physical attention, as does driving, and using a cell phone takes that attention away from driving.
Gottfredsen and Gray also said a distracted driving ticket costs around $100 in River Falls, and more elsewhere. But the cost of an accident can be much larger. For example, Gray said, civil lawsuits could run in the millions.
He told students they owe it to themselves, their friends, family and community not to use their phones while driving.
Jarmusz ran the distracted driving simulator and after each student volunteer had gotten used to the simulator, he asked them to get out their cell phones and do something like search nearby movie theater showtimes, look up the Minnesota State Fair lineup, and had the audience text and call the final volunteer, while he was driving.
In addition to encouraging students to take the "It Can Wait" pledge, Gottfredsen also encourages students to take his own pledge to not use cell phones while driving. Those who sign the pledge get their names entered in a random drawing for a gift card.