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Using tragedy to teach dangers of texting while driving

The car that a teenager died in is parked outside Roosevelt High School in Seattle, May 17, 2011.
Paula Wissel/KPLU
The car that a teenager died in is parked outside Roosevelt High School in Seattle, May 17, 2011.

How do you convince someone not to text or talk on the cell phone while  driving?  How about an in-your- face reminder of what can happen if you do?  That's the tactic Seattle Police have been using this week. 

They've been parking a black Honda, with the driver's side smashed in, outside area high schools. A Tumwater teenager, Heather Lerch, died in the car in February of 2010while texting and driving.On Tuesday morning, Seattle Police Officer Kipp Strong stood outside Roosevelt High School next to the car.  Kids walked by and stared or laughed nervously.

"This is what happens to somebody when they decide to check their text message when they’re driving their car. Heather was a 19 year old honor student, working her way through college. She hit a guard rail on her way home,” he told the students.

Heather's  parents donated the wreckage to the Washington State Patrol  so police can use it for safety demonstrations like this one. They also speak to school assemblies.

And they are featured in a Public Service Announcement.

The display seems to have made an impression on at least one Roosevelt  student.  Jonathan Camner looks at the wreck and shakes his head.

"Wow. That's insane," he says.

He insists he never texts and drives but says his friends do.  When asked if this kind of thing would have an impact on them he says it would.

"Nobody would want to be in something like this. It sucks that she died," he says.

It’s the kind of reaction police hope to hear.

Traffic safety officials say parading around a car like this is powerful because kids can relate to something happening to someone their own age.

But, maybe teenagers aren’t the main problem when it comes to texting or using a cell phone while driving. Officer Strong admits he actually sees more adults doing it than kids.

In Washington state, it’s been illegal to text or use a handheld cell phone while driving since last June.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.