Driving home a point

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Accompanying my son to a two-hour presentation on safe driving was not my idea of a good time, but attendance is required by the San Dieguito Union High School District for both student and parent, for students to receive a high school campus parking permit.

I knew what they would tell him, just what we’ve been telling him for ages – the usual admonitions against texting, cell phone use, drugs, alcohol, speeding and distracted driving.

Not that those aren’t valuable lessons to hear. But since dire warnings tend to lose their punch after the 30th or 40th time, I thought he would just tune them out. And I’d be bored to tears.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were tears alright, but not from boredom.

This was a powerful presentation – full of jokes and laughter, somber moments, an engaged audience, and a dynamic California Highway Patrol officer who connected with the kids on all levels. He packed a wallop with his photos and videos that, sure enough, presented the expected warnings in living (and sometimes not so living) color. But the difference was they were delivered in ways that captured our attention and had an impact.

Called Start Smart, the program was developed by the CHP and is a free two-hour driver safety education class that targets new and future drivers ages 15 to 20. Students must attend with a parent or guardian.

Beginning in 2011, SDUHSD required attendance at a Start Smart presentation, to obtain a campus parking permit. The previous year, the program was voluntary. But because so many parents “loved it” and “thought it helped inform kids with real information instead of the online classes kids take today,” SDUHSD associate superintendent Rick Schmitt said the district decided to make it mandatory.

The class goes beyond the minimal driver education programs by offering in-depth lessons on accident avoidance, distracted driving, drunk driving and basic road responsibilities.

CHP Officer Eric Newbury began by listing what teens worldwide said were their top distractions. Among the usual assortment of driving diversions – eating, boisterous conversation, music, texting – was this: having sex in the car.

“You can’t tell me that’s not a distraction,” observed Newbury dryly, to awkward laughter from the teens and embarrassed groans from the adults. Thus were we warmed up for an entertaining morning.

Subsequent slides with disturbing statistics punctured our brief interlude with frivolity. The charts and graphs showing how teenagers have more crashes, many lethal, than any other age group, were sobering.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking video was the story of a teenage boy whose girlfriend was driving when she became distracted by a friend in the back seat and hit a tree head-on, killing her boyfriend instantly. No drugs or alcohol were involved.

This was a sober driver who was exceeding the speed limit, became distracted, crashed the car, and killed someone she loved.

Listening to the driver speak about how she could have avoided the catastrophe that killed her boyfriend and changed her life forever, was agonizing. How does one recover from that? How many years of therapy does it take to get past the horrific finality of causing a preventable death?

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