Driving home a point


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?


Several of the videos shown were taken from DriveCam, a camera mounted inside the car that is activated by sudden, erratic movements.

“The impact of the DriveCam video-based driving feedback program has been repeatedly measured by independent traffic safety researchers and shown to have an immediate, dramatic and lasting change,” said Bill Carpenter, head of the consumer division of the San Diego-based company.

DriveCam [], which costs about $500 including installation, records only those incidents triggered by a driver’s abrupt or risky driving patterns or movements.

It is not spying or surveillance, Carpenter said. Rather, it provides a “report card” of sorts that gives parents instant feedback of their young driver’s behind-the-wheel progress and missteps. Advocates say teens are motivated not to set off DriveCam and drive more cautiously as a result.

“As a parent we want to hand over the keys – and wish we had a magic wand that would put us back into the passenger seat for just those few precious coachable moments. Now we do,” Carpenter said.

“You wouldn’t put a baby in a car anymore without a car seat, and parents need to use the same safety precautions when putting their ‘babies’ behind the wheel,” said Del Mar resident Debbie Mark who called DriveCam “the car seat for teens.”

Experts agree that speeding, inattention, peer pressure, alcohol and particularly inexperience contribute to the dangers associated with young drivers.

According to “Crash Facts” from the Centers for Disease Control, teen drivers are four times likelier to crash than older drivers, nearly two-thirds of teen crash deaths happen when a new driver has one or more teen passengers, and night-time fatal crash rates for 16-year-olds are nearly twice as high as daytime rates.

[We learned that the term “car accident” is a misnomer – collisions are almost always avoidable and are not “accidents.”]

A 2009 American Automobile Association study found that the majority of people killed in teen crashes are passengers and other drivers, not teen drivers.

According to the Calif. Dept. of Motor Vehicles, traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers across the country. For both sexes, drivers ages 16 to 19 have the highest average annual crash and traffic violation rates of any other age group – nearly three times higher.

Driving with passengers increases the fatality risk more than three times for teen drivers, and the relative risk of a fatal crash increases as the number of passengers increases.

The DMV lists these major concerns for young drivers who have yet to acquire the experience and ability to make clear judgments:

•poor hazard detection

•underestimating crash risks

•overestimating their ability to avoid threats

•risk-taking due to overconfidence

•not wearing seat belts

•no mastery of basic vehicle handling skills

•alcohol or drug impairment

•distractions from passengers

•night-time driving

Baby rattlesnakes

Calling his teenage audience “baby rattlesnakes,” which are considered by many to be more dangerous than adult snakes because they are more likely to deliver a full, uncontrolled dose of venom with minimal provocation, Newbury interspersed the comic with the tragic.

Much of his presentation consisted of tips and advice, especially this: “Stupid is out there – look out for Stupid around every corner.”

And advice for the boys: “You will show off for girls and do idiotic things with moving vehicles. It’s testosterone. It’s part of your make-up. Resist the temptation!”

This was punctuated by Newbury’s personal anecdotes, tales of his own antics as a youngster doing dim-witted stunts in his vehicle, for which he not-so-proudly displayed the scars to prove it.

Drivers can expect to be ticketed when violating traffic laws, Newbury said, because taxpayers pay him to do just that – that is, remove bad drivers from the road and minimize the harm they can cause others.

There was no more gut-wrenching moment than hearing Newbury speak of having to tell parents their child died in a car crash.

Burying a child is a catastrophe unimaginable, he said. To paraphrase:

“You don’t know what love is until you’ve had a child. You may think you love your girlfriend or boyfriend, you love your parents and siblings, you love your dog, and you love your wife. I love my wife dearly. But there’s something that kicks in when you have a child of your own. You’ll do anything – anything – for that little bundle of baby. It’s a part of you. To have to tell a parent at 2 a.m. that their son or daughter is never coming home again, it’s brutal. Children bury their parents, not the other way around.”

To drive home the point (no pun intended), Newbury showed us pictures of his father Frank who was killed in a collision when Frank was 24 and Eric was 3.

“Meet my dad,” he said, showing us a photo of Frank as a young man – happy, smiling, full of life. He was killed by a motorist who ran a stop sign, depriving Eric’s mother of a husband and Eric of a father who was missing for all the proud moments in Eric’s life that give every father immeasurable joy.

Start Smart is a partnership of the California Highway Patrol, the San Diego County Sheriffs Department and the San Dieguito Alliance for Drug-Free Youth.

Registration for classes, which are open to all students and parents, are held periodically throughout the school year at all San Dieguito high schools and can be found on each high school Web site.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at