Program helps teen drivers gain traction against distraction

Templeton High students get an earful — minus the cellphone — on how to stay alert behind the wheel

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comApril 4, 2012 

Spur-of-the-moment choices that cause drivers to look away from the road could mean injury or death. That’s the message Templeton High School students took home Wednesday after participating in special talks and activities to promote California Teen Safe Driving Week.

“We’re all very good at rationalizing, ‘It’s just this one time,’ ” speaker Kelly Browning said of sneaking a peek at a text message or making a phone call. Browning is executive director of the Impact Teen Drivers program that visits schools statewide to educate young people on the dangers of reckless and distracted driving — an event Browning says is the No. 1 cause of teen deaths in the United States today.

“Between family and friends, or just looking out the window — within 10 seconds you see someone on a cellphone. It just takes one person to speak up,” said Templeton sophomore Matthew Scott. He’s a member of the school’s Friday Night Live chapter, a statewide program that rallies student leaders to teach their peers about alcohol, tobacco and safety issues.

CHP officials also shared what they look for in distracted drivers.

“Following someone who is texting looks just like someone who is under the influence: they speed up and slow down, they will weave erratically,” CHP Coastal Division Chief Reggie Chappell said.

Leaning to one side, raising an elbow or keeping your head down are all signs CHP officer Todd Cookston looks for in drivers who may be using a cellphone illegally.

On Wednesday, Cookston pulled over a driver on Highway 101 just outside Paso Robles after he saw her talking on a cellphone at an intersection before entering the freeway.

It’s common for drivers to think that when their car is stopped, it’s all right to use a cellphone not equipped with a hands-free device.

“But you’re not parked. You’re in violation when your car is in drive,” Cookston said.

As he approached the woman, whose name was not disclosed, he also noticed that her windshield was cracked — a distraction that can block a driver’s vision.

Because the driver was honest about her wrongdoings, Cookston gave her a warning.

“It’s not about giving tickets. It’s about just not doing it,” he said of resisting the urge to pick up a cellphone.

About an hour before, Cookston did ticket a man in the North County because he was blatantly violating the law.

“He was so into his phone that he wasn’t even aware I was there,” Cookston said, noting that such a failure to react could indicate blatant disregard for general road safety, as well.

The man also wasn’t wearing a seat belt, the same offense he had been ticketed for three years earlier, Cookston discovered.

Educating younger drivers to not be offenders on the road, let alone repeat offenders, is the biggest push for proponents of safe driving.

Deaths of 16-year-old drivers in the state increased 16 percent in the first half of 2011, compared with the same period the previous year, according to Impact Teen Drivers.

Among those who spoke Wednesday was Martha Tessmer, a Central Valley woman whose 16-year-old son, Donovan Tessmer, died in 2007. The teen was ejected from the back seat of a vehicle operated by a distracted driver. Tessmer has partnered with Impact Teen Drivers since 2009 to share her story.

She wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke to students, recalling how she missed the little moments with her son, such as when they said to one another, “I love you.”

“There is nothing happening in a car that’s worth losing that,” she said.

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