The image looms high above southbound U.S. 131, just north of the Burton Street exit — a tear falling from a teen girl’s eye, a pair of hands clutching a cell phone instead of a steering wheel, and a bold command: “STOP THE TEXTS, STOP THE WRECKS.”
Ashlyn Clark created the image in class at Northview High School. Now about 150,000 motorists a day will drive by it. She hopes they take notice.
“I hope if someone saw it, they would read it, get the message, and then put their phone away – like, think twice,” said Ashlyn, a sophomore.
Noah Dietlein, a freshman at Kent City High School, and Mitchell Kerkstra, a junior at Lowell High School, also hope to deter distracted driving with designs they created. Noah’s is on a billboard on southbound U.S. 131 just north of the Cedar Springs exit, and Mitch’s is on westbound Int. 96 near Portland.
Theirs were the winning designs in a contest coordinated by the Kent County Sheriff’s Department and Lamar Advertising of Muskegon. The aim is to enlist students in the effort to curb what some call an epidemic of distracted driving, with texting by teens being a major contributor.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported fatalities from “distraction-affected” crashes rose by 8.8 percent in 2015, to 3,477. A University of Michigan study found 25 percent of teenagers respond to a text at least once whenever they drive.
Not Just for Teens
The billboard blitz aims to raise awareness around prom and graduation time, said Deputy Tim Erhardt, a school resource officer at Kenowa Hills who organized the campaign and has long educated students about distracted driving.
“We like to target teenagers, but everybody is a danger when they’re driving distracted,” Erhardt said.
Lamar Advertising is donating space on billboards when they aren’t being used by an advertiser. The distracted driving messages will be up for at least a month on the current billboards, and likely through the summer as other spaces become available, said sales manager Frank Diehl.
“I drive 30,000 miles a year, and I see a lot of distracted driving,” said Diehl, who knew Jacob Freybler, a Kenowa Hills High School student who had been texting before he died in a car crash. “With outdoor advertising, we target drivers with our messaging. We’re going to use that tool to get this important message out.”
School resource officers coordinated a contest among six schools to nominate designs by their students: Byron Center, Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Kent City, Lowell and Northview. Winning entries from the latter three were chosen by a panel of judges.
Noah Dietlein said his Kent City art classmates came up with the wording, “Look above the dash, avoid the crash,” and he drew a dashboard with a cell phone reading “STOP.”
“I hope people just (see) it and put away their phones – pay attention when they’re driving,” he said of his billboard.
Mitchell Kerkstra took photos of skid marks in the Lowell High School parking lot to go with the message, “All it takes is ONE distraction.”
He knows of students who have been involved in texting-related accidents. He hopes his message will cause others to put their phones down behind the wheel.
“It’s dangerous,” Mitchell said. “It can take someone’s life.”