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Driving home the safety message

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Sophmore at J.H. Rose High School Brice Bizzell, 16, rides the Seat Belt Convincer during The Pitt County Teen Safe Drivers Summit 2017. With only lasting a matter of seconds going at a rate of 10 miles per hour, the rides purpose is to show how strong of an impact an accident can have, even when traveling at a slow speed.


Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Adults know how impossible it can seem to hold a teenager’s attention long enough to grasp important life messages. On Saturday at the East Carolina Heart Institute in Greenville, they got a chance to see hundreds of teens from Pitt, Greene, Nash, Edgecombe and Craven counties fully engaged in learning one of life’s most important lessons: Safe driving.

The students got a chance to hear about, see and safely experience the consequences of bad driving habits at the Second Annual Pitt County Safe Drivers Summit. Presentations at the daylong event provided the new and soon-to-be new drivers with stark information about the effects of drugs, alcohol, poor sleep and distractions on drivers of all ages. Some of the speakers shared first-hand stories of how poor decisions on the highway instantly changed their lives.

The free event was sponsored by Vidant Medical Center, the Eastern Carolina Injury Prevention Program, Safe Kids of Pitt County, the Pitt County Sheriff's Office, the Greenville Police Dept, State Farm Insurance and the Governor's Highway Safety Program.

Kerrie Warne came to the summit from Ballwin, Missouri, to tell students here about her 18-year-old son, Tyler, who was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel and the car he was driving slid across the interstate, left the roadway, flipped several times and hit a tree. One witness said the driver did not appear to apply the brakes during the incident.Tyler Warne was pronounced dead at the scene.

“I learned later that Tyler was the perfect statistic,” Warne said. “Boys age 16-24 are more likely than girls to fall asleep; 2-4 p.m. is the second-most likely time for a drowsy-driving crash. But I didn’t know before and we never had one of those conversations like parents have with their kids about drinking, texting, or distractions. I got mad because I realized his death was preventable, and I asked Matt Uhles of the Clayton Sleep Center in St. Louis why I didn’t know about this.” 

The Clayton Sleep Center does public service presentations on the danger that poor sleep poses to drivers. The problem is particularly prominent in the teen population, Uhles said. National statistics indicate that 71 percent of teens report having fallen asleep while driving. One in five high school seniors admit to falling asleep once per week while driving, Uhles said.

“That’s like playing Russian Roulette on the road,” he said.

Getting the message into schools, where driving accidents are the leading cause of death among teens, is challenging, Uhles said. 

“Schools need a story to tell,” he said. “Sadly, it’s Tyler’s story and Kerrie’s tragic loss that gets us in the door, but if we get to teens early, interrupt their thoughts and reverse this trend of less and less sleep, we can save a life.”

Warne’s story and those of other speakers were arranged by Jennifer Wobbleton, injury prevention specialist with the Injury Prevention Program, who first heard them at national conferences she attended..

“We thought they shared great information and recounted important experiences we think our kids can learn from,” Wobbleton said.

The comprehensive approach reaches parents and students in drivers education classes and through peer-to-peer programs in all six county high schools, she said. 

Outside of the conference center, law enforcement representatives set up the parking lot to provide hands-on demonstrations of the effects of many types of impaired driving, even the potential consequences of driving without a seat belt fastened. Veteran State Highway Patrol Trooper Steve Ziemba knows too well the heartbreak that teen driving mistakes and poor decisions create.

“It’s important for these students to be here so they’ll understand the reality of the consequences of not wearing a seat belt, drinking and driving and distracted driving,” Ziemba said. “I see those consequences every day. I’ve knocked on parents’ doors too many times. To tell a parent like I had to that their son was killed in a crash is devastating to them and to me. I know personally how fragile a child’s life is, so I do whatever I can.”

Farmville Police Chief Donnie Greene, the father of three boys, supervised students as they attempted to drive golf carts through a maze of traffic cones while wearing special goggles that simulate the sight of an alcohol-impaired driver.

“We see some horrific wrecks that claim young lives,” Greene said. “I’d like to say that my boys are safe drivers and know what they’re doing, but I also know they’re boys. Any time we can be part of a program that talks to young drivers and then shows them how quickly doing something as simple as tuning a radio can cause you to lose control of a car, we want to be part of doing that. A motor vehicle is a 4,000-pound deadly weapon and we try to bring that message home.”

Jerald Whitley, 15, a student at South Central High School, seemed to get the message.

“I learned that 52 percent of people involved in accidents are drunk, and that’s really sad,” Whitley said. “People are not invincible.”

Caroline Webb, a 16-year-old junior at North Pitt High School, presented a talk to other students about distracted driving.

“I’ve learned that doing something like texting or changing a song while driving can change a life,” Webb said. “When I was in second grade, my teacher was killed on the road when a trailer on another vehicle came unhitched and went through her windshield. That changed our community.”

Kimberly Fain, a teacher and student government adviser at North Pitt, said she knew her students would benefit from getting message on several different platforms that the Safe Drivers Summit provided.

“It’s so difficult to get this message to sink in to young people because they think they’re invincible at this age,” Fain said. “It’s almost impossible to get them to realize this really happen to them until it actually happens in their community.”

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com at 329-9507.