• He’s taking safety on the road
    By Amy Ash Nixon
     | May 15,2014

    BARRE — As a new staff member at the Youth Safety Council of Vermont, Bill Merrylees will be giving Turn Off Texting presentations to high schools and driver education programs across the state.

    Merrylees, an East Montpelier resident, said Wednesday that he’s excited to join the Middlebury-based council and bring the message to young drivers about the potentially grave consequences of texting while driving.

    He fit the job posting, which sought “a teen-savvy presenter.”

    “I’ve been working with students for 20 years or so, mostly in a nontraditional sense, mostly in after-school programming,” he said. Most recently he worked for Community Connections, the after-school activities provider for the Montpelier and the U-32 school districts. The federal grant that funded that job was cut.

    He said the work he’s doing for the council with young people “is very interesting and very meaningful for me, because in the long run, it could save some lives.”

    Merrylees is an avid cyclist and serves as chairman of the Montpelier Bicycle Advisory Committee. “I’ve seen drivers who are oblivious to the road because they are on the phone,” he said, describing one time when he was nearly hit while on his bicycle, because of someone on a cellphone, driving with one hand.

    The new job has him administering golf-cart driving tests to illustrate the dangers of texting.

    “I set up a course with traffic cones, and there are some turns and some stop signs. It’s 6 feet wide, and the golf cart is 4 feet wide, and what they do is they drive this course and I time them, and we count the number of cones they hit,” he said.

    “Then I sit next to them in the golf cart and I dictate a text to them while they are driving. Someone driving but not texting might take a minute or so, and they’ll knock over three or four cones. Then if they do it when they are texting, more often they are about a minute 20 (seconds) to a minute 30, but the real significant thing is instead of knocking over four cones, they knock over 10, so it’s twice the errors.

    “Kids experience it for themselves, ‘Wow, this just doesn’t work, it doesn’t feel safe.’ I tell them to imagine the cones as puppies or grandmas or a class of kindergartners. ... Potentially these errors could be life-threatening to yourself or others. That’s what the texting program is all about.”

    The program also works with UPS drivers around Vermont, said Merrylees, but typically it is for driver education courses. The council has one other presenter sharing the duties.

    According to the council, up to 100,000 crashes a year involve drivers who are texting, and 75 percent of teens say texting and driving is common among their friends.

    In a report posted on the website, Vermont Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan identifies the threat of texting while driving as measured in the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey as “a new public health crisis.”

    The nonprofit Youth Safety Council says the texting presentations are funded by a grant from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program and support from sponsors.

    For more information, visit YSCVT.org or email info@yscvt.org.

    @Tagline:amy.nixon @timesargus.com

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