South Carolina’s teenage drivers, aged 16 and 17, had a decrease in fatalities 2012 compared with 2011, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety’s Office of Highway Safety.
Across the United States the teen fatality rate has been increasing, while since 2003 South Carolina has seen a consistent decline from 29 fatalities to 13.
Teen driver fatalities have been a main topic of the news since the Governors Highway Safety Association last month released a study indicating that deaths of young drivers had risen in much of the nation for the first six months of 2012, compared with the first six months of 2011.
South Carolina’s mandatory seat-belt law, which took effect for the first full year in 2006, helped reduce teen deaths, according to safety officials. Currently around 60 percent of teens who die in fatal accidents not wearing a seat belt.
Luckily the state of South Carolina has federal and corporate grants to fund programs that reach tens of thousands of high school students each year. These programs are developed to confront teens in emotionally dramatic ways to get them to change youthful reckless driving habits that could get them killed.
Begun in 2007 at 11 high schools and reaching 3,511 students that year, this intensive, 4½-hour program taught by law enforcement officers last year reached 18,284 students at 105 high schools. The program goes far beyond driving mechanics and knowledge of traffic laws, focusing instead on emotionally connecting with students to get them to change dangerous driving habits.
“It’s not a scare tactic — it’s more an emotional impact — how would your parents react if we were to knock on their door and say you aren’t coming home?” said Brooke Russell, executive director of the S.C. Chapter of the National Safety Council.
One big reason for its success might be that many schools won’t allow students to drive to school unless they have taken the course.
Alive at 25 is designed to modify teens’ risk-taking behavior. In recent years, various studies have indicated that areas of teen brains that assess risks may not be fully mature, making teens prone to act on impulse and to take unnecessary chances. Studies suggest the brain’s capacity to make good judgments on reasoning and planning matters doesn’t mature until the early or mid-20s.
Last year’s Alive at 25’s $1 million-plus costs was supported by the $35 tuition each student pays, as well as hefty grants from insurance and automotive companies and dealers. The program is sponsored by the S.C. Chapter of the National Safety Council and is modeled on programs elsewhere in the nation. Parents are encouraged to attend and sit in the back of the room. Classes average from 15-25 students.
Beginning in 2009, this Office of Highway Safety program has put vivid traffic safety messages on some 5 million tickets sold at most state high school sporting and extracurricular events. The cost: $85,000 in federal funds.
“That teenage audience is a hard group to reach, with all their social media,” said Office of Highway Safety director Phil Riley, “but these get in the hands of teens and their parents and center on four major issues — drinking and driving, texting and driving, not wearing a seat belt and speeding.”
Bought at a cost of more than $145,000 in federal grants over the past several years, the Highway Patrol’s three rollover simulators and one driving simulator last year reached a total of some 15,000 mostly young people.
“When a student sits down in the driving simulator, we set different programs,” said Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Bob Beres. “They find out how easy it is to be distracted and run over an object or a person, or run into a building.”
The rollover simulators spin and eject life-sized, unbuckled dummies.
In this program, selected parents of young people who’ve died in avoidable traffic accidents speak to groups of students.
“The students are going to connect — they are going to think, ‘Wow, this could be my dad talking, this could be my mom sharing the story if I got killed,’” said program director Faith Turner.
Last year’s speakers appeared before 15,800 students at 47 schools.
South Carolina lawmakers could take a major step in continuing the decrease trend in teen deaths if they would adopt a graduated youth driver’s license, which would require teens to spend more time behind the wheel with their parent or guardian before turning them loose on the highway.
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