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Driver's ed covers new distractions

Karen Torres, who lost her father, Patrick Mapleson,

Karen Torres, who lost her father, Patrick Mapleson, on March 17th, 2006 in a motor vehicle accident that involved a distracted driver, speaks to a Drivers Education class at Smithtown High School East in St. James. (July 12, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

Driver's education class used to include just a speaker -- perhaps someone who lost a relative to a drunken driver -- to convincingly warn young motorists of the perils of drinking and driving.

But now, increasingly, driver's ed teachers are retooling their lessons to keep up with new distractions, such as texting.

Thursday, the state announced that since tougher laws were passed last year to regulate texting-while-driving, it has issued more than 20,000 tickets to violators, including more than 1,400 Long Islanders.

"When I first started teaching driver's ed, we didn't have all of these distractions," said Bob Fiore, who has taught the subject at Hauppauge and Jericho high schools for 35 years. "There's a lot more material that we have to cover now."

Managing music and rerouting on the GPS also compete for driver attention. Teaching young motorists to keep off their devices is not easy.

"There are a lot of people that believe it is nowhere near as dangerous as drinking and driving," said Craig Boehner, a Smithtown instructor. "It's hard to convince people that it's something that's dangerous to do because there are so many people that are doing it."

Instructors point to a recent federal study that found text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times greater than driving without distractions. It also found that sending or answering a text, on average, takes a driver's eye off the road for nearly five seconds.

Rocco Panetta, executive director of the Texting Awareness Foundation, a nonprofit in Bohemia that hires speakers to discuss distracted-driving said: "You are literally closing your eyes when you are driving."

Karen Torres, a foundation teacher, lost her father when he was killed on Sunrise Highway by a truck driver trying to pick up a water bottle. "We all think we're invincible, that it's never going to happen," she said. "It's getting people to change their mindsets; that's the challenge."

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