Skull Church pushes youths not to text while driving

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Not many people would close their eyes and drive the length of a football field at 55 mph.

But that's essentially what happens when people text while behind the wheel. Drivers who text take their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds of a 6-second period, according to a 2009 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study.

That's enough to travel farther than 100 yards at highway speeds.

It's a habit that makes drivers 23 times more likely to have a collision than drivers who keep their eyes on the road, according to the Virginia Tech study.

It's a habit that contributed to hundreds of fatal accidents in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. Of nearly 5,500 fatalities involving distracted drivers, close to 1,000 were distracted by cellphones.

It's a habit Skull Church in Kalispell hopes to help people break.

The monthly event hosted by Fresh Life Church introduced an initiative Wednesday to encourage drivers of all ages to give up texting behind the wheel.

"Driving a car by itself is dangerous enough," Pastor Levi Lusko said. "How cocky are we that we text while we do this?"

Skull Church-goers were invited to sign a commitment not to text and drive by stamping a large image of an iPhone with their thumbprints. In exchange they received a free thumb ring, a visible reminder on their texting digit to honor that pledge.

Jasmine McDonald, 21, and her 14-year-old sister Alexandra Moore, a student at Bigfork Middle School, stood in line to leave their thumbprints on the phone.

Moore, while still too young to drive, said she was there to pledge not to text while biking.

McDonald said she doesn't often text while driving but has caught herself sending short texts from her car.

"I'll have my knee using the steering wheel, and I do know how to text with one hand," she said.

McDonald said she believed taking a pledge in public and seeing the band on her thumb will help her stop texting behind the wheel.

"It's dangerous. I think this will really help me," she said.

Seventeen-year-old Solomon Ray said he was shocked by the statistics about how dangerous it is to text while driving.

"I want to live to see my kids," he said. "I think [the pledge] is something good to do."

But Ray admitted that texting while driving is a hard habit to break

"When the phone buzzes, it's hard not to instantly look at it. It's a reflex," he said.

Young people weren't the only ones who took the pledge. Ron Jimenez of West Glacier went through the line with his adult niece.

"I can't text and drive. ... It scares me," Jimenez said. "I went through with my niece, to get her to stop. She has a habit of texting while driving, and she has three children. I talked her into not doing it."

Lusko said the initiative was born from his personal struggle with the temptation to text behind the wheel. Even when he gave up sending messages from the driver's seat, he found himself reading texts and emails.

Then he started hearing stories and statistics about people who had died because they'd been distracted drivers.

"It's not just that I could die, but who I could kill," he said.

Lusko and other Fresh Life pastors realized that Skull Church presented a perfect opportunity to challenge others to give up texting while driving.

The service tends to attract teenagers and young adults, who are most likely to text behind the wheel. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 26 percent of American 16- and 17-year-olds text while driving.

"Skull Church has a really unique platform to speak into people's lives," said Coy Trammel, executive pastor.

"It's a captive audience coming to hear the gospel and hear something we believe ultimately will save their soul. ... In doing so, we also can leverage that to the audience we have, not just to know how to die well but to know how to live well and live longer by knowing how to live safer."

Lusko illustrated that point by talking about Mariah West, an 18-year-old from Rogers, Ark., who died the day before her high school graduation in 2009. She had lost control of her car while texting. The last message she received read "Where U At."

"While she was answering that text, she was entering eternity," Lusko said.

"No text is worth dying for," he added. "Jesus died for the sins of the world. That's something worth dying for."

The church will continue its initiative at next month's Skull Church service, which starts at 7 p.m. May 4 at the Strand and Liberty theaters in downtown Kalispell. That will give people who couldn't make it to Wednesday's event or who needed time to think over their commitment a chance to take the pledge, Lusko said.

For further information about the initiative, visit www.skullchurch.com.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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