SAMOHI — The somber ballad “Amazing Grace” filled Barnum Hall while a spotlight followed a handful of students dressed all in black as they escorted a closed casket past their stunned peers. At that moment it became clear that this was not like most high school assemblies.
Held last month at Santa Monica High School, the organizers of the dramatic In One Instant Safe Driving Program did their best to drive home the point that all it takes is one instant, whether it be glancing at a text message or reaching for mascara, for a driver to take someone’s life or their own.
Endorsed by law enforcement and public health officials, the In One Instant program is a product of Streetwise Media, a nonprofit founded by Pacific Palisades and Brentwood parents who saw too many young people lose their lives because of distracted driving. With April being Distracted Driving Awareness Month, it is their goal to get more teens and their parents talking about the dangers of eating, texting, reading or simply changing the radio station while driving.
“It touched a lot of people,” Samohi senior Olivia CoriaSoria, 18, said of the assembly, which she was selected to participate in by her principal. “As soon as the spotlight hit the casket you could tell everyone was like this isn’t just another assembly where we horse around and make jokes. Kids were really paying attention. I feel it was the most powerful and most moving assembly we probably could have had at Santa Monica High School. I really hope people got the message.”
Driver distractions are the leading cause of most vehicle crashes and near-crashes. According to a study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some form of driver distraction. The distraction occurred within three seconds before the vehicle crash.
Distracted driving activities include things like using a cell phone, texting, and eating. Using in-vehicle technologies, such as navigation systems, can also be sources of distraction, authorities said.
How big is the problem?
In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, compared to 3,267 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control. An additional, 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011.
In June 2011, more than 196 billion text messages were sent or received in the U.S., up nearly 50 percent from June 2009.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for 15 to 20 year olds and more crashes occur when passengers, usually other teens, are in the vehicle with a teen driver.
Statistics like those worry Gail Schenbaum Lawton, co-founder of Streetwise Media and the mother of two.
“We watched our teenage children attend three funerals of friends who died in alcohol or distracted driving collisions within a two-year period and we felt we had to do something,” she said. “We decided to be proactive in order to save lives. Enough is enough.”
What makes In One Instant different from other programs, Schenbaum Lawton said, is that it incorporates the teens, making it entirely peer driven and experiential. Students like CoriaSoria are selected to participate in a Sunday workshop that lasts several hours and includes sharing stories from those who have lost loved ones in car accidents. Students also write “goodbye letters” to their parents in which they talk about the poor decisions they made that led to their fictional deaths.
“There were plenty of tears,” CoriaSoria said of the Sunday workshop. “There were some powerful stories. … I had to read out loud about a boy who crashed into a utility pole because he was reaching for his phone to read a text message. His life was taken in an instant.”
Students lead the assemblies, speaking directly to their peers in hopes of making a greater impact instead of students sitting and listening to adults.
“Nobody wants to be lecture,” Schenbaum Lawton said. “The goal is to really empower teens to make smart choices about driving.”
The casket and mock car crash scene help get the point across. At Samohi organizers set up a mangled silver convertible complete with fake blood, police tape and memorial candles. Students were also asked to take a survey about their driving habits and are encouraged to take the Call-to-Action, which includes signing up for the In One Instant club on campus.
The program kicked off at Palisades Charter High School two years ago. Samohi was next in line. In the coming months the program will hit Culver City High School and University High. The goal is to hold assemblies in as many high schools in the Los Angeles area as possible. To do that takes funding though. Streetwise Media has a goal of raising roughly $87,000. The group has raised $50,000 so far. The program has corporate sponsors, including State Farm and Fineshriber Family Foundation, as well as Tip Top Tow and Wells Fargo. Schenbaum Lawton said the nonprofit likes to partner with businesses in the communities where the assembly is held.
CoriaSoria is one teen who hopes the program can be experienced by more students, including underclassmen at Samohi, who did not participate in the assembly. By exposing it to those who have not yet started driving, she believes the program can create good habits — like turning off cell phones before getting into a car. She said the program has impacted her and her friends greatly.
“I’m not going to lie. Before the assembly I did [text while driving],” she said. “I did it one time and it wasn’t something I was proud of. But after the assembly broke it all down and showed us how one stupid decision can really hurt so many people, I’ll never do that again.”
To learn more about In One Instant or to donate funds, visit www.inoneinstant.org