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It was her last summer before college, and 18-year-old Merritt Levitan was set to embark on a big cross-country bike trip, riding from Charleston, S.C., to Santa Monica, Calif.
A lover of the outdoors, Merritt had been preparing for the 3,000-mile journey throughout her senior year, hoping to “unplug” from technology and be in tune with nature for a month and a half. For her senior project, she even created a guidebook on how to train for such a long ride.
With everything ready to go, she made one final Facebook post on June 18, 2013 before she embarked on the trip.
“Leaving tomorrow to bike across the US with Overland Summers!” wrote Merritt, a recent graduate of Milton Academy near Boston, Mass. “No phone or Internet or any other form of communication for 6 weeks. Super excited!”
But the bike trip she had planned so extensively for would end in terrible tragedy. On July 2, Merritt and six other cyclists were riding through rural Arkansas, when a 21-year-old male driver ran his car into the group, seriously injuring Merritt and many of the other riders. Merritt was quickly helicoptered to a hospital in Memphis – but the injuries to her brain were too severe, and she died the following day on July 3.
A few months after her death, details began to emerge about what exactly caused the accident. While early reports suggested the driver had zoned out while looking at the open fields, it was soon determined that he had been texting on his cell phone – for just four seconds.
“The man made a choice in that moment to do more than one thing at the same time, on a road where it is nearly impossible to crash into bikers,” Emeline Atwood, one of Merritt’s friends at Milton Academy, told FoxNews.com. “He chose to look down at his phone.”
Cellphone use is at an all-time high, leading to an increase in the number of people who text and drive. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a 2011 survey found that 69 percent of drivers in the United States reported talking on a cellphone while driving. And even more disturbingly, 31 percent of drivers said they had read or sent text messages or emails while behind the wheel.
Such activities may seem harmless in the moment, but health experts note that these habits lead to visual, manual and cognitive distractions on the road. And when the brain is focused on two different tasks at once, it often cannot efficiently perform both.
“Think of attention as a limited commodity, a pie you can only slice so many ways,” Felipe Amunategui, a child and adolescent psychologist for UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, told FoxNews.com. “It’s fairly limited, and the brain has a lot of resources invested in automating tasks. Like driving, the movement you do is out of your awareness, but it remains precise.”
Amunategui explained that when a person looks down at a cellphone, he or she must divert their visual attention to a small screen, adjusting their field of vision from something far away to something very small and close.
“That element of refocusing on a text and then looking up outside the car requires adjusting your eyesight,” Amunategui said. “When your vision is good, that process takes up to a second or two, but if it’s less than optimal, it can take a lot longer. On top of that you have to craft a text, and if you add an emotional element, it’s very easy to forget the primary task you’re engaged in and divert attention entirely to texting.”
According to the CDC, distracted driving accounts for nearly one in five crashes in the United States. In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, and an additional 387,000 people were injured in distracted driving accidents.
From tragedy to change
Merritt’s death sent shockwaves through her tight-knit community outside of Boston. More than 1,400 family and friends attended her memorial service, with many unable to make sense of what had happened.
“We all lost Merritt,” Rich Levitan, Merritt’s father, told FoxNews.com. “There were multiple communities she touched when she was with us… It’s palpable, and it’s been really, really hard as you can imagine. She was amazing; she was an incredible kid.”
Hoping to find the best way to honor Merritt’s memory, her friend Emeline and fellow Milton students Abigail Lebovitz and Kaitlin Gately teamed up to create the TextLess Live More campaign, an initiative aimed at encouraging people to put down their phones and enjoy life through their own eyes. With help from Merritt’s parents, Rich and Anna Levitan, the three friends funded the creation and distribution of more than 10,000 blue “TextLess Live More for Merritt” bracelets, as well as kits that explain their mission.
“Merritt knew what was right and what was authentic and real and how to do those things,” Emeline said. “…It was a way to keep her remembered and actively make a difference, but then it just started going beyond that.”
Through their work, the TextLess Live More campaign has spread to multiple high schools across the country, even making it all the way to California. On July 3, the anniversary of Merritt’s death, the schools will come together to initiate a National “TextLess Live More” Day, in which the Levitan family and Merritt’s friends will encourage everyone to not text for the entire school day. In addition, a national public service announcement on the dangers of distracted driving, narrated by “Breaking Bad” star Giancarlo Esposito, will launch that day, reaching millions of TVs across the United States.
While TextLess Live More is mostly aimed at helping people disconnect from technology, the Levitans hope the grassroots campaign will lead to legislative change of some kind, such as banning all cellphone use in vehicles. They believe that the population’s constant usage of technology is both dangerous for others and themselves.
“There’s a gift out of this tragedy,” Anna Levitan, Merritt’s mother, told FoxNews.com. “I think that young people are starting to go, ‘[texting] isn’t so fun as we think it is.’ …We’re going to know in five or 10 years, this constant barrage of virtual opportunity, what the byproduct is.”