Anti-distracted driving campaigns targets students

A nine-year-old boy fidgets on the front seat as dad drives them to baseball practice. He absentmindedly messes with his cap and slaps a baseball in his mitt.

Out of the corner of his eye, he notices an ice cream truck cruising slowly down the street. His attention divided, he loses track of his ball, which thumps loudly off the dashboard and into the lap of dad, who involuntarily swerves and loses control.

If you thought distracted driving only affects teens, think again. Even for experienced adult motorists, a disruptive elementary school-aged passenger can be as dangerous as a spilled cup of coffee or a ringing cell phone, said Kelly Browning, executive director of Impact Teen Drivers.

The nonprofit organization aims to reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by distracted teen drivers. Since its founding in 2007, the organization has reached more than two million California students with in-school educational programs and materials that underscore the dangers of reckless and distracted driving - including one aimed at elementary schools.

Impact Teen Drivers does about 300 presentations per year in California, but Browning is convinced the group reaches far more people.

Through our Train the Trainers and Lead the Leaders programs, we instruct educators, first responders, and health professionals to use the Impact Teen Drivers program," she said. "In California alone, we train more than 145 California Highway Patrol public information officers every year, numerous local law enforcement agencies, PTAs, and many administrators and teachers to administer the Impact Teen Drivers program directly to their audiences."

While the organization's name includes the word "teen," its program is not just for teens: Impact Teen Drivers provides lessons to students from elementary school through high school.

Lessons for elementary students include the Passenger Power curriculum featuring superhero "Captain Power" and his "Passenger Pets," activity and coloring sheets that teach good behavior in a vehicle, role playing activities to identify right versus wrong behaviors in a vehicle, and question and answer outlines that teach young passengers not to distract the driver.

"The elementary curriculum focuses on good decision making as a passenger and how they can help their parents become safer drivers by asking them not to talk on their cell phones, not saying, Look at the drawing I did in school today,'" explained Browning in an email. "The middle school curriculum is more about role-playing different scenarios: Who can make a difference? You can make a difference.'"

At the middle school level, lesson plans include six videos where four of the six fatalities were passengers, suggestions about being a good passenger by allowing the driver to focus on the road, thought-provoking discussion questions aimed at passengers, interactive activities that add visuals and fun to the facts, and eye-grabbing posters and other materials that emphasize the dangers of some common habits.

Teaching tools for high school students include videos that mix facts and humor with real stories of teens who lost their lives to distracted driving; 18 teen-hosted webisodes, each with a fun slant on serious distraction issues and common habits that can become deadly; lesson plans for multiple subjects based on California state standards; discussion questions; peer-to-peer messaging on posters, t-shirts, and more, and a teen-oriented website with discussion board, videos, and story sharing capabilities.

Student reactions to presentations vary, Browning said. In schools where a student has died in a car wreck, the response is typically welcoming and respectful. But even in schools where the students' initial response is cool, Browning said the nature of Impact Teen Drivers' presentation generally wins over even jaded students.

"If we are presenting in an assembly format with 1,000 to 2,800 students, students typically respond with mild interest initially, which quickly intensifies into great curiosity," she said. "Our approach is to first engage teens, then to educate them."

The early engagement, Browning said, usually begins when students are asked to name behaviors they consider lethal to perform when in a moving vehicle. After an initial discussion about how common acts like talking or texting on a cell phone, applying makeup, or adjusting the car's stereo can be fatal when driving, presenters move on to the serious topic of the young lives lost to reckless and distracted driving and the friends, parents, siblings, and communities devastated by the losses.

Presenters avoid using gory stories and images, Browning said.

"We do not take the graphic and gory approach to talking with teens," she said. "Our research indicates that graphic and gory does not change long-term attitudes about teen safe driving behaviors and attitudesâthat in fact, they disassociate from the message."

Impact Teen Drivers employs multiple platforms to disseminate its safe driving message: live events at schools, the websites www.impactteendrivers.org, www.whatslethal.com, and www.rulethal.com and via an extensive social media presence.

The organization's formation, said Browning, was the brainchild of California Association of Highway Patrolmen Chief Executive Officer Jon Hamm, who wanted to reduce the frequency with which highway patrol officers responded to crashes involving teens.

"The impetus for the creation of Impact Teen Drivers was research being done with California Highway Patrol officers regarding the most stressful aspect of their jobs," she said. "The responses were clear: arriving at a scene where a young person needlessly lost his or her life and notifying the family that they would never see their loved one alive again was the most stressful aspect of a CHP officer's job."

Hamm and the CAHP forged a relationship with long-time partners California Casualty and the California Teachers Association to create Impact Teen Drivers. Browning said the education community has proved especially receptive to the organization's message.

"The response was overwhelming; losing a teen in their schools had a huge impact on them personally and professionally," she said. "Looking out at the empty desk and thinking about what could have been and what will never be deeply affected the educators."

The program, said Browning, received such positive responses from California teens, educators, law enforcement, parents, and community members that it expanded into 27 states during the 2009-10 school year.

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