SDUHSD adds Smart Start program to drive improvement in auto safety

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although alcohol has been a leading cause of these auto crashes, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports a rise in another crucial contributor to impaired driving by young people: marijuana.

Marijuana is no small contributor. Nearly 1 in 3 college students admitted to driving after marijuana use, and 1 in 2 said they rode with a driver who had been using, according to a 2014 NIDA report. In addition, 1 in 8 high school seniors drove after using marijuana, and 1 in 5 rode with a driver who had been using.

To help stem the tide of teen motor vehicle injuries and fatalities, many San Diego County high schools and districts are implementing Start Smart Driving Safety Classes, a free educational program demonstrating the perils of drugged and drunk driving.

Start Smart targets students between the ages of 15 and 20 and their parents/guardians. The San Dieguito Union High School District has made the program mandatory for students who want to park on campus.

While the policy was implemented after a rash of teen driving fatalities involving alcohol in 2009, officials now make it a point to emphasize the risks of marijuana use as well. Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, and use rates have gone up as acceptance and availability have increased.

Studies show that marijuana can impede critical driving skills such as decision-making, peripheral vision, reaction time and multitasking, and in some instances can result in psychotic episodes that result in speeding and recklessness.

While marijuana’s effects when driving are dangerous on their own, the impact on driving is even more critical when marijuana use is combined with alcohol use. Joseph Olesky, an addiction counselor with the San Dieguito Union High School District, said this can be the case with juveniles and can be fatal.

Marijuana contributed to 12 percent of traffic deaths in 2010 in California, triple that of a decade earlier. The American Automobile Association notes that teen driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs is a factor in 1 of every 14 crashes.

In short, marijuana leads to more dangerous roads.

During the Smart Start class, videos of teen motor vehicle crashes provoke a variety of emotional reactions as San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol officials discuss factors causing collisions.

Officials also discuss the serious laws, obligations, responsibilities, and family expectations that are part of driving a car. Teens and parents are encouraged to discuss these issues at home, and to establish Parent-Teen driving agreements. Research studies conclude that parents can influence their teens’ driving habits by setting and enforcing clear rules and expectations.

Kenneth Hansen, a parent, said the program sends an important message to kids and families about the dangers of alcohol- and drug-impaired driving.

“I found the program to be highly effective,” Hansen said. “The emotional impact of the videos makes kids and parents sit up and listen. It should be mandatory for everyone who drives, not just kids.”

More than 2,700 parents and students in the San Dieguito Union High School District attended the Start Smart classes last year. San Dieguito Alliance Executive Director Judi Strang said the program is important for educating families in the community about the issue.

“Start Smart is definitely contributing to our community goal to educate families and to reduce the number of teen motor vehicle crashes, injuries and fatalities related to alcohol and drug impaired driving,” San Dieguito Union High School District Superintendent Rick Schmitt said.

“Kids see the consequences of decision making before they drive, and that’s very important,” said parent Monica Moore. “They learn that the actions they take can be a life-and-death matter. It’s a strong and unforgettable message about the responsibility of driving a car.”

For information about future Start Smart high school classes in the San Dieguito region, visit www.sandieguitoalliance.org; to attend a class, email startsmartdriving@gmail.com.

— Submitted press release

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