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Teen driver crashes are the leading cause of death for youth in the United States. The overwhelming majority of those crashes are not caused by "thrill-seeking" or deliberate risk-taking, but instead by distracted driving.

That's according to Impact Teen Drivers, a California-based non-profit organization committed to raising awareness of the dangers of reckless and distracted driving. A new campaign run by police resource officers in the Wauwatosa School District aims to bring learned information from Impact Teen Drivers to local schools.

"I certainly see distracted driving," said James Morrill, a school resource officer stationed at Wauwatosa East High School. Morrill said he periodically notices students distracted at the wheel near school grounds and he has pulled over a number of drivers when he was on regular patrol during the summer months.

He never wrote any tickets for distracted driving, but he always told people to put their phones down, Morrill said.

But distracted driving can include more than just texting while driving, he said. Applying makeup, eating, transporting passengers and even talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel can create added risk, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified three main types of distractions:

  • Visual: Taking eyes off the road to read a text message, program a navigation system, look at a map or "rubbernecking" at a crash site. 
  • Manual: Taking hands off the wheel to reach for things, dial the phone, adjust the radio, eat, drink or apply makeup. 
  • Cognitive: Taking your mind off driving to talk on the phone or argue with a passenger

According to the CDC, in 2013, 3,154 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver. Also in that year, about 424,000 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver — about a 10 percent increase since 2011.

Bringing facts to Wauwatosa 

To help educate students, Morrill has launched a campaign at Wauwatosa East High School, 7500 Milwaukee Ave. On Wednesday, Sept. 21, students were scheduled to discuss the dangers of distracted driving during their advisory periods and Morrill planned to run a table during lunchtime where students could participate in activities and gather more information.

Plus, Morrill planned to hang educational posters around the school so that students would continue to learn about the cause long after the advisory period dedicated to discussions was over. Morrill received training on the topic alongside the school resource officer at Wauwatosa West High School during a conference in Madison in 2015.

The school's advisory period, which is in its third year, allows students to meet with a designated teacher for 25 minutes every Wednesday. Teachers keep the same advisory group of about 15 students for all four years, said Kelly Roberts, a coordinator for the school's academic resource center.

"The main focus of advisory is to create a more positive atmosphere in the building and help all students make connections with each other and staff," she said. "Some weeks we focus on serious topics such as texting and driving or suicide prevention. Other weeks we participate in lighter activities such as an all school celebration in the gym or homecoming week door decorating."

The advisory period also covers college and career readiness topics like preparing for life in college and how to get a job. Student groups sometimes create lessons, too.

A number of national movements have launched to help spread awareness about distracted driving, including AT&T's "It Can Wait" campaign. The effort aims to spread the message that surfing the web, texting, or posting things on social media channels can wait until after the driver arrives at its destination.

Morrill said AT&T's campaign includes a lot of the key points he wants to relay to the Wauwatosa students he interacts with. The officer added distracted driving has not been a major talking point since he was first stationed at the school about four years ago. But he hopes to make it a regular topic of discussion.

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