Liberty High School effort targets teen distracted driving

Posted: Dec. 29, 2012 3:44 pm Updated: Jan. 19, 2013 6:15 pm

By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR Herald-Whig Staff Writer

LIBERTY, Ill. -- Two Liberty High School students are making some noise about an issue facing teens across the nation.

Sophomores Brooke Wiewel and Olivia Hanzel are members of one of 19 teams from across the country that will lead teen distracted driving prevention initiatives in their local community through the National Organizations for Youth Safety, or NOYS.

"A lot of kids see it on the news, hear about it occasionally, but think nothing like that will ever happen to me. They don't realize the impact of them being distracted or someone else being distracted," Wiewel said. "We're just doing what we can to make teens aware, to change their habits and get them to change others' habits as well."

The effort, now in its third year at Liberty, started with the high school's Family Care and Community Leaders of America group and continues to grow.

FCCLA teams -- Torri Meyer and Kara Larson last year, Wiewel and Hanzel this year -- applied for and got Operation Teen Safe Driving grants through the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The grant -- with sponsors including Allstate, Ford Motor Co. and the Governors Highway Safety Association -- provided funds to buy promotional items, such as frisbees and lanyards with safe driving logos, and for activities such as playing basketball or frisbee while wearing "drunk" goggles.

"This summer we've had three accidents, and it really brought out attention to why we want to keep our classmates safe and do whatever we can to keep them from getting in accidents," Hanzel said.

"On school days, we're going to try in our gym at lunch to have little games that have to do with distracted driving," she said. "Our peers are pretty open to listening to us. Making our ideas fun, so they'll want to be engaged in them will probably be the tricky part."

The activities will culminate in a large event before the end of the school year.

"We plan on hosting a summit for our community in May with guest speakers to get attention drawn to traffic safety," Wiewel said.

Another opportunity sent Wiewel and Hanzel this month to the Teen Distracted Driving Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C. It provided plenty of speakers, training activities and new ideas to bring back to their fellow students and community.

The high school students "enjoy a lot of the stuff we do," Wiewel said. "We think we're having an influence on them, making an impact."

FCCLA sponsor Brenda Meyer said the team's effort received a gold rating through the organization's Families Acting for Community Traffic Safety effort at last year's nationals and continues just as strong this year.

Wiewel and Hanzel helped with last year's team, and "we were just thrilled they got the opportunity to go out (to Washington D.C.), all expenses paid, and find out new techniques we don't know about," Meyer said. "They were so excited when they got back, filled with all sorts of ideas."

NOYS, a coalition of more than 60 national organizations, business and industry leaders and government agencies, has one common goal -- to promote safe and healthy behaviors among America's youth.

The organization stresses "that youth prevention efforts be done with youth and not to youth," NOYS Executive Director Sandy Spavone said in a news release. "We are looking forward to the leadership of these youth to provide direction and implementation of teen distracted driving prevention initiatives all across the country."

Meyer said it's an important message for teens.

"They're so involved on their telephones that they cannot usually separate themselves when they get in a car," Meyer said. "It's so easy for them to communicate that I don't think they realize how distracted that is when they're behind the wheel."

If nothing else, the message about safe driving hits home for FCCLA members.

Meyer remembers her daughter Torri, now a student at John Wood Community College, telling a friend not to text and drive while she was riding in the car.

"It's going to take a lot of convincing for them to realize how dangerous it is, but if we keep talking about it, it doesn't just go away," Meyer said. "We want to keep it on the front line."