SPRING HILL — Stephen Augello confessed Tuesday morning that he no longer drives his car along Hudson Avenue on his daily trips to Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School.
Instead, during those drives to drop off or pick up his 14-year-old son, Stephen Jr., a freshman at the school, he takes a different route.
His wife, Agnes Augello, found it emotionally trying just standing inside the Bishop McLaughlin foyer, even in the presence of friends and family.
The couple lost their daughter, Alessandra “Allie” Augello, on Nov. 10, 2008 to a driver who was texting. The driver veered into Allie’s lane, striking her head-on and killing her. The crash occurred on Hudson Avenue.
Allie, then a Bishop McLaughlin senior, was 17.
Marking the first day texting while driving in Florida is illegal, a program, in conjunction with AT&T, was held Tuesday at Bishop McLaughlin’s Eleanor Dempsey Performing Arts Center.
Reading or sending a text, instant message or email from a phone while driving is a secondary offense, according to the new law. Authorities first must catch a driver breaking a separate offense before applying the law.
On the center’s stage, the Augellos shared their story of tragedy as a result of texting and driving. Other families who suffered similar tragedies were featured in a short film, It Can Wait. There was also a simulator set up allowing students to experience the difficulties of driving while texting themselves.
“I do it because I know if it was me that was in that car, it would be my daughter (speaking),” Stephen Augello said. “So I do it because I know that’s what she would have done.”
Agnes Augello last spoke to a crowd of students in Hillsborough County about two years ago. It’s a task that has become too much for her to bear.
“It’s hard to stand here,” she said. “I’ve stood here so many times picking up, dropping off, coming in, doing events, whatever. It’s hard. Very hard.”
A memorial was recently completed near the entrance of the school, featuring two benches, mulch, and a small tree. The centerpiece is a letter written by Agnes to Allie etched onto a plaque.
The couple also handed out the first awards of the Allie Augello Scholarship Fund. Students wrote essays on texting and driving. The scholarship money will be used to help pay a student’s tuition at the private school.
Dennis Laidly ($1,000 and a Samsung tablet) won first place; Gina Marie Mejias ($500) was second, followed by R.J. Perciavalle ($250).
Drivers who read and send text messages are 23 times more likely to be involved in a wreck, according to research from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Statistics from the National Safety Council show more than 100,000 crashes each year nationally are caused by texting and driving.
An AT&T survey conducted in 2012 revealed 75 percent of teenagers admit texting and driving is commonplace among peers. Meanwhile, 90 percent of those in a ConnectSafety.org study said they would stop texting and driving if a friend in the car simply asked.
Laura Vien, a senior at the school, said she has been in the car while family members or friends are texting while driving. She’s even done so herself. Vien said she has stopped and following Tuesday’s program, she’ll be more assertive in asking others to stop.
“That was extremely difficult to watch. I just felt so bad,” Vien, 18, said of the short film and the Augello’s story. “I never want to be the cause of anything like that. It was really difficult.”
Vien and William Potosky, 17, were among students to test the simulator.
Neither could keep in their lane while texting and driving in the video game-like simulation.
“Texting and driving is very serious and it’s dangerous,” Potosky, a junior, said. “I think it’s a great thing the law was passed.”
State Rep. Doug Holder, who also spoke at the school Tuesday, sponsored the bill after he and his wife watched a 2007 news reports of a group of five Albany, N.Y. teens killed in a wreck in which texting caused a distraction. The group was killed after being hit by an 18-wheeler.
That night, Holder’s wife asked him to do something.
“I’m happy because right now, we have the ability to tell people that are learning how to drive and people that are learning how to text that those two things together are deadly,” Holder said.