What’s your instead?

By Tyler Manoukian

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Last February, on a day with clear skies and pristine road conditions, one University of Massachusetts senior learned the hard way that he should not have been texting and driving after almost demolishing his car while texting. The driver was with his sister, and he now says he realized at that moment how dangerous texting and driving has become. That driver was Matthew Medney.

“The reason I almost crashed is because I was texting,” said Medney, president and founder of Project Instead. Established in March 2010, the nonprofit organization strives to educate society about the dangers of distracted driving through prompting people to find reasons to not text and drive – their “instead.”

For Medney, his instead is skiing. He loves to be on the mountain. If he answered the phone while driving, he could get into a car crash and never ski again. That scares him and he is not the only one.

UMass Student Trustee Mike Fox said Medney’s work has helped convince him not to fiddle with his mobile while behind the wheel

 “Every time my phone vibrates for a text message now when I’m driving, I reflect back on the Project Instead presentation (earlier this month) and realize that it can wait.”

Project Instead has been working hard to reach as much of the campus community as possible. The organization has now spread to over 250 floors in 25 buildings across campus. Medney said he and his Talk To You Later (TTYL) team hope to spread the Instead word to every university in America, starting in Massachusetts and, more specifically, the Five College area.

 The TTYL team’s passion is involvement.

“The best part about being involved is the excitement that comes from each new day of working on our mission,” said Scott Savran, a TTYL team member.

Another member of the TTYL team jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the organization and quickly realized how serious of a problem distracted driving is through extensive research for the Project Instead website. Jeffrey Barash stressed that knowing he has the power to make people realize they are endangering their lives and the lives of others was the reason he joined the organization.

Studies have shown that people who text while driving are about 23 percent more likely to be in a car accident than those who do not. To put those statistics into perspective, those who text and drive are six times more likely to crash than someone driving drunk. Texting affects teenagers even more than the rest of the population. About 60 percent of teens admitted to texting while driving last year.

Though Medney’s father created the original storyline and intellectual property of Project Instead, it was Medney who took the idea and ran with it.

“Everybody has [an instead] for different reasons – some could be family-based or egotistical-based. Whatever they are, they keep our roads safer,” said Medney. “It matters that they understand that there are more important things than answering that text at that moment in time,” he added.

Medney stressed his point when he mentioned the story of a young girl from Springfield, Mo. whose life was tragically taken from her just one day before her graduation. The young woman was driving to a minor league baseball game to meet her friend, whom she was texting on the way. She lost control of the car; It swerved and clipped a bridge, eventually flipping over and into oncoming traffic. Her last text received was, “Where U At?”

Texting takes a driver’s focus away from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds — enough time to travel the length of a football field at 55 mph. Had this girl had her own “instead,” she might still be alive today.

About two months ago, Medney approached the widely-recognized international nonprofit Stay Alive, Just Drive (SAJD) in hopes of forming a partnership with the larger and better-funded organization. As part of the partnership, Project Instead would become a part of the former and receive funding from the group to promote Instead nationally.

SAJD is a traffic crash prevention, awareness, and education program aimed at curbing distracted driving and promoting safe driving. Its goal is to reach every motorist with its message: “Safe driving is not expensive, it’s priceless.”

Should this partnership be agreed upon, Medney would become the director of development in charge of bringing the program to other college campuses. The program would create chapters at universities which would be responsible for keeping the program afloat on that campus through community service and awareness education.

Tyler Manoukian can be reached at [email protected]