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Driven to distraction

To prove a point, driving instructors target teens with mobile messages
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Borhan Muthana, 16, takes the Allstate Safe Driving Challenge in Detroit, Mich., on Aug. 27 at Comerica Park. Muthana attempts to negotiate texting and driving on a closed course. Mandi Wright | Detroit Free PressMCT
 Posted: 2:00 AM September 12, 2012

DETROIT — Dearborn, Mich., teenager Borhan Muthana throws his dad's 2008 Honda Pilot into reverse while checking his iPhone for new text messages.

Before he can type "Dnt txt n drv," he hits an inflatable reptile.

"You killed the alligator!" Mohamed Ahmed, 16, his Dearborn friend and backseat passenger, says as Muthana stops the car.

The inflatable alligator's untimely death was an object lesson in the dangers of distracted driving during Allstate's Teen Safe Driving Challenge in Detroit this week.

In a parking lot in the shadow of Comerica Park, where baseball's Detroit Tigers play, 25 teens from Dearborn's Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services swerved through a closed course.

Driving instructors sent them text messages, called their cellphones, played the radio loudly and tried to distract them while observers tracked their performance.

The casualties — splayed blue cones — piled up as fast as the teens could text.

But that's the point, said Allstate driving instructor Rob Lindsay. The insurer wants to show how dangerous it is to drive while your attention is elsewhere.

"It is our goal that these teens will take this message back into their own communities with their own peers and start talking about it and saying it actually is cool to be a good driver," Lindsay said.

Although distracted driving is a problem with all ages, teens are among the worst offenders and least-experienced drivers.

About 64 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds said they have been passengers while the driver texted, though only 26 percent admitted to texting behind the wheel, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated at least 3,092 people in 2010 were killed in car accidents in which distracted driving was a factor. That's why the U.S. Department of Transportation has made it a mission to eliminate distracted driving.

Last week, the DOT and Ad Council partnered with Fox TV show "Glee" on a public service announcement urging young drivers to put down their phones. The ad features "Glee" character Quinn Fabray, who was temporarily paralyzed in a car accident because of texting and driving in the show's third season.

"Youth think they're sort of invincible," said Sarah Chaar, academic and youth development coordinator for the nonprofit ACCESS, whose students took part in the Allstate event. "They think they can multitask like everybody."

Educating teens on the dangers of texting while driving is a tall task, Muthana said. "It's really bad. Everyone does it."

Dearborn resident Reina Shields, 17, was texting as she barreled over several blue cones while mother Anne Ramirez watched helplessly.

"You took that whole row out," Ramirez said afterward.

"I know," Shields said, "so embarrassing."

In an added dose of reality, several teens had to navigate the course in a downpour.

"I hope the rain makes it even more real," said Gary Heslinga, head of Michigan sales for Allstate. "Driving by itself is distracting enough without all the external things we add. Kids, they're distracted anyway. They're young and they're inexperienced and they're invincible, so events like this help spread the word."

After running the course, teens received individual assessments of their performance while distracted.

"There is no such thing as a good distracted driver," said Jeff Maher, an Allstate distracted-driving instructor. "It's an impossible thing to do."


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