Teens Educate Peers About Distracted Driving

Photo: Texas teens pledge to drive responsibly

For high school senior Ali Read of Bristol, Conn., the summer of 2007 is seared in her memory.

That July, David Nocera, 17, a fellow student at Bristol Central High School, was killed in a car crash. Three weeks later, four more local teens died in a car crash on the way home after swimming at a friend's house. In both cases, the students were traveling at night, going faster than the speed limit.

"We are all just so surprised when the accidents happened," Read said. "As teens, we tend to think that we are invincible and do not realize that we are driving a two-ton bullet."

After the accidents, "I wanted to do everything I could to help keep myself and others safe," Read told ABCNews.com.

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So she helped found her school's chapter of Teens in the Driver's Seat to help curb what she calls an "epidemic."

The program, started in 2003, is the first peer-to-peer safety program for young drivers. Russell Henk, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute, developed the program after a string of teen crash fatalities -- a total of 10 deaths in six weeks -- in San Antonio.

Last week in Bristol, Read helped organize "Grim Reaper Day": A gong sounds over the loudspeaker periodically, and the Grim Reaper appears in a classroom to remove a student. The student, who later emerges with his or her face painted white, is not allowed to speak for the rest of the day. The Grim Reaper claimed 16 victims, representing the 16 teens who would be killed that day in an automobile crash in the U.S.

Each year, more than 6,000 teens will die in car crashes, making it the single greatest cause of death for teens in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Currently, there are 315 high schools in Texas and a dozen more in Georgia, Connecticut and California that have Teens in the Driver's Seat programs, which reports reaching nearly 352,000 students.

One of the program's primary goals is making teens aware of the top five hazards while driving.

"In the past, the general focus has been on the dangers of not wearing a seatbelt and driving under the influence of alcohol," spokesman Bernie Fette told ABCNews.com.

But, added Fette, seatbelts and alcohol are at the bottom of the list. Ahead of them are: driving at night, distraction and speeding.

New drivers often have an inflated sense of their own capabilities, says Emma Leiblich, a junior at Roswell High School in Roswell, Ga. "Kids feel overly safe when in the driver's seat."

Driving While Drowsy

The hazards of speeding are obvious, but other factors in teen deaths on the road may come as a surprise.

"A lot of people are oblivious to the fact that most accidents happen at night," Ashley Thompson, a junior at Keller High School in Keller, Texas, and member of the Teens in the Driver's Seat advisory board, said.

"Young drivers just do not have enough practice to be good at it," Fette said.

Drowsydriving.org, a division of the National Sleep Foundation, reports that being awake for 18 hours is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent -- legally drunk in most states.

The sleep-deprived individuals "will often feel reasonably alert at the beginning of a trip, but the sedentary nature of driving can quickly unmask the underlying pressure to sleep, creating a dangerous situation within a few minutes, " said Thomas Balkin, chairman of the foundation and chief of the department of behavioral biology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, in Silver Spring, Md.

It's not clear why young people are more susceptible to a crash due to drowsy driving, Balkin told ABCNews.com, adding that one cause could be a greater level of sleep debt along with less ability to recognize sleepiness or stave off its effects.

Distractions: It's Not Just Cellphones

And then there's the much talked about driving while distracted.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 515,000 people were injured last year and more than 5,800 killed as a result of distracted driving.

But while Oprah Winfrey made headlines with her urge to end all cell phone use while driving -- encouraging individuals to sign her No Phone Zone Pledge -- it's not only texting or talking on a cell phone.

"Passenger distraction often gets overlooked, but when you add a teenage passenger, it doubles, add two passengers, it triples, and add three or more teenage passengers, and it increases crash likelihood by a factor of six," Fette said.

While 37 percent of teen drivers recognized text messaging as at least "very" distracting in a national survey by the insurance company Liberty Mutual, only 5 percent rated having a friend in the car as "extremely" or "very" distracting. But two-thirds of teens who die as passengers in a car crash are in vehicles driven by other teens, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Preventing Friends From Becoming Statistics

"Whenever you hear something from one of your peers, you take it to heart," Thompson said. "When you hear personal stories and how real people have been affected by teenage driving accidents, the message becomes much more effective."

On the second Tuesday of each month, for instance, Columbus High School in Columbus, Texas, dedicates the morning announcements to conveying safe driving messages, courtesy of the TDS team. La Vernia High School in La Vernia, Texas, has a wrecked car parked at the parking lot exit to remind students of the dangers. Duluth High School in Duluth, Ga., holds routine driver safety press conferences.

The message seems to be getting through.

Cell phone use while driving at Teens in the Driver's Seat schools has been shown to drop by as much as 30 percent, and assessments show that awareness levels of teen driving risks increase by up to 200 percent.

In the city of Garland, Texas, teen involvement in all crashes was 28 percent before the Teens in the Driver's Seat program. Afterward, teen involvement in crashes dropped to 16 percent.

"It is important for all teens to recognize the responsibility of driving and the risks associated with the privilege," Read said. "Through Teens in the Driver's Seat, teens are given the chance to help prevent their peers from becoming a statistic."

ABCNews.com contributor Caitlin Mangum is a member of the University of Texas ABC News on Campus bureau in Austin.

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