Kelly Browning doesn't believe car wrecks are accidents.
Call them crashes, collisions or wrecks—whatever it takes to understand that the injuries and deaths these incidents cause are entirely preventable.
"The No. 1 killer of young people is reckless and distracted driving," said Browning, a Ph.D and the executive director of Impact Teen Drivers."...This isn't some obscure disease."
Nationwide, 400,000 teens are seriously injured in car crashes annually. Thousands die, including two Watsonville teens who were killed in separate crashes earlier this spring.
Browning considers this a public health crisis, she said in a recent interview while visiting Santa Cruz County.
Many teen-involved collisions, injuries and deaths are blamed on reckless and distracted driving. Texting and cell phone use is the most talked-about distraction, but anything from chatting with passengers to eating, putting on makeup to changing the music can take the driver's attention away from the road long enough to cause catastrophic problems.
"We've got to reorganize our priorities and recognize that this is preventable," Browning said. "It's a winable battle."
In Santa Cruz County, it's accompanied by an enforcement component—California Highway Patrol officers step coverage around the high schools after students experience the Impact Teen Drivers assembly.
The assemblies will be held at Renaissance High in Watsonville, where students mourned the loss of a classmate and a recent graduate to car crashes this spring, on Thursday, and Soquel High next week, according to CHP officer Sarah Jackson.
If the reactions Jackson got at other area schools are any judge, the assemblies will leave a lasting mark on students.
Browning said surveys have shown a 75 percent immediate reduction in distracted driving and, six months later, a 65 percent decrease.
The assembly is weird and quirky—kids are asked what they consider fatal (drugs, snakes, etc) then learn that riding in a car is far riskier. They watch a video that catches them off-guard, then hear from the mother of a young man who died in a preventable car crash. His girlfriend was driving.
Jackson said they don't use "scare tactics" (think wrecked cars brought in on tow trucks) and try to engage kids.
Scotts Valley High students heard Jackson's Impact Teen Drivers presentation a few days before homecoming last fall. They were so touched, student leaders decided they needed a float in the homecoming parade about the dangers of reckless and distracted driving. Jackson agreed to drive a CHP cruiser in the parade with a banner about the program. It was also the debut of the Impact Teen Drivers QR code, which links smart phones to an educational video.
During the homecoming football game that night, the educational video website had 900 hits.
"I have a lot of confidence in our young people," Browning said.
Parents need to get on board as well, she said. Setting a good example by not using cell phones in the car promotes good choices among children as they grow up.
Browning likened this campaign to effort for seat belt use in the 1980s or against drunk driving decades before. Seat belt compliance was 11 percent in the mid-'80s. Now it's over 90 percent.
"I think we're going to get there," Browning said. "I just hope it doesn't take as long."
For more information about Impact Teen Drivers, click HERE.