“Oprah” Turns Ferst Center into No Phone Zone

The Ferst Center for the Arts was transformed into a television studio Friday, April 30. Georgia Tech students joined those from Savannah College of Art & Design, Emory University, Georgia State University and a handful of high schools gathered for the satellite taping of Friday’s “Oprah Winfrey Show.”

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Lawrenceville resident Lisa Duffner recounts the death of her 2-year-old son, Ryan, who was killed in 1999 by a teenage driver talking on her cellphone.

Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center was one of five satellite feeds set up for Oprah’s Friday show, which was dedicated to Winfrey’s No Phone Zone campaign. Launched in January, the initiative seeks to garner pledges from viewers to refrain from talking on the phone or texting while driving. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers using hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into a serious crash.

“Oprah” show organizers seated roughly 500 people under bright studio lights and handed out signs declaring a “No Phone Zone.” In a first for the top-rated daytime talk show, four other cities—Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.—joined the Ferst Center in a live link to the Chicago studio. In different segments, Winfrey spoke with hosts stationed at each site. Actress Holly Robinson Peete moderated the Georgia Tech crowd.

As the feed cut to the Ferst Center and the stage lights brightened, audience members responded by standing, cheering and waving their signs. At Tech, Lawrenceville resident Lisa Duffner recounted to Winfrey and the audience the death of her 2-year-old son, Ryan, in 1999. Duffner, Ryan and her daughter were hit by a teenager talking on a cell phone while driving a van. “All I’m asking is for you to change your habits,” she said. “It’s a small thing to ask. [Talking on a cell phone while driving] has destroyed my family.”

Also in attendance was Donald Peck Leslie, medical director for the Atlanta-based Shepherd Center, which specializes in treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord and brain injuries. “[Nearly] 65 percent of our patients are from motor vehicle injuries,” he told the Ferst Center crowd. “More and more of these are occurring because of distracted driving. Please think about what you are doing. [Talking on the phone] while driving is an addiction, but it can be broken.”

Immediately following the taping, Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Deputy Director Spencer Moore informed the crowd that the General Assembly had passed a Senate Bill 360, which effectively bans texting while driving. It has been sent to Governor Sonny Perdue for his signature.

According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 due to a distracted driver. Other studies show that the proportion of drivers reportedly distracted increased from 8 percent in 2004 to 11 percent in 2008. Each day, more than 800,000 drivers are using a hand-held mobile phone or device during daylight hours.

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