Distracted driving the focus of campaign at Niles North
Actors Robyn Scott and Colleen Murray perform one of the skits during the "Decide to Drive" program at Niles North High School. Decide to Drive is a national effort to teach young drivers about the dangers of distracted driving. | Brian O'Mahoney~For Sun-
Updated: October 18, 2012 9:40AM
SKOKIE — A “driving test” at Niles North High School was unlike any other.
“In order to get a drivers license we need to test your real-world driving capabilities,” the instructor said. “When should you wear your seat belt?”
“Whenever I get into the car,” the student driver confidently replied.
“Whenever you get pulled over,” she corrected.
You can imagine where this was going. The student sped past a bus on the right side of the road, talked on a cell phone, ate a Big Mac and jammed out to pop-hit “Gangnam Style,” much to the amusement of the instructor and onlookers.
Fortunately the scene was merely a skit performed in a classroom by improv actors.
A gang of comedians led by Chicago veteran actor Mark Sutton joined the Skokie Police Department one morning earlier this month to help kick off a traveling public-awareness campaign that illustrates for teenagers nationwide the problem of distracted driving.
The “Decide to Drive” campaign, led in partnership by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, is visiting high schools in five U.S. cities to teach young drivers the importance of paying attention on the road.
“At a basic level, (the campaign) is about preventing human suffering,” said orthopedic surgeon Leon Benson, a doctor from the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute and AAOS spokesperson.
Skokie was the first stop for the program, which aligns with the District 219 Board of Education’s five-year plan and goal to foster powerful partnerships.
Niles North Director of Physical Education Paul Swanson said the program teaches students how to be proactive about breaking bad road habits to ensure the safety of self and others.
“Driving comes with responsibility: responsibility to yourself, your vehicle, pedestrians and drivers on the road, ” he told an audience of Niles North upperclassmen and driver’s ed students.
He added: “Part of that responsibility is being an attentive driver.”
The presenters acknowledged cell phones as main culprits of distraction. Benson said advances in technology have put a lot of pressure on people to multi-task.
But doing anything more than driving when behind the wheel “could be catastrophic,” he said.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,092 deaths in 2010 were related to distraction-affected crashes.
Eleven-percent of all drivers younger than 20 who were involved in fatal crashes reported a distraction at the time of the crash.
Skokie Police Officer Eric Swaback said he’s “seen it all” when it comes to unsafe driving.
He said state and local laws help deter distracting behavior.
Illinois has statewide bans on texting while driving and phone use by drivers in school and construction zones.
Drivers younger than 18 who are out past curfew technically don’t have a valid drivers license in Illinois, Swaback said. Young drivers are also prohibited from talking on their cell phones at all when driving.
In Skokie, curfew begins at 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and on midnight Fridays and Saturdays.
The program hammered home for students that sticking up for safety involves tough conversations with family and friends, including parents, about practicing safe driving.
Alex Finnegan, 17, of Morton Grove, said afterwards while she learned a lot in the presentation, more could be done to inform students about curfew laws and the consequences of distracted driving.
“Texting and driving is actually really scary to think about,” she said.
Finnegan said she always makes an effort to convince her peers to put down their phones while they drive. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t, she said.
“It all depends,” Finnegan said.