Teen drivers feel impact of safety workshop

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It would probably surprise a lot of people to find out that 75 percent of teens killed in traffic accidents are not the result of alcohol or drugs. Distracted driving kills over 4,000 teens and injures another 400,000 annually.

That's the message Zoe Schuler, of Impact Teen Drivers, drove home to hundreds of Righetti High School students and their parents during a series of presentations Wednesday.

"We focus on distractions," Schuler said. "We try to get them to understand it could happen to them, but it really doesn't have to."

"It" didn't have to happen to Sydnee Williams, either. The Ohio teen died in a car crash in 2013 just shy of her 18th birthday. She was driving distracted and not using her seat belt. While one of her passengers walked away from the single-car accident and another was seriously injured but survived, Williams died after being ejected from her car.

Now, her story is told to thousands of teen drivers through the Impact Teen Drivers program and her father, Brock Dietrich, is among the most outspoken critics of distracted driving.

Most teens know the dangers.

According to a survey by the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, 87 percent of teen respondents said they know it is dangerous to text while driving, but 18 percent added they still use their phones to talk and text while driving.

Schuler said it's not just cellphones that create those distractions. Loud music, rowdy passengers and their electronic devices and reckless driving also play into the accident statistics.

"This assembly really brought to my awareness how dangerous driving and texting can be. And how it can affect other people and not just myself," said 17-year-old Mitchell Silva. "I got my license right after I turned 16. Everyone is always excited when they do that.

"It helped me realize that I need to tell somebody when they're driving dangerously to protect myself."

The Impact Teen Drivers program featured a Parent-Teens Workshop on Wednesday evening that educated parents about their children's driving safety.

California Highway Patrol Officer Matt Kenney and Santa Maria Police Officer Ron Murillo provided information about the state's Graduated Driver's License laws and provisional licenses. All 50 states have adopted some form of graduated driver's licenses, which include restrictions to teens' driving rights.

Provisional licenses restrict new drivers from having passengers under 20 years old unless a licensed driver 25 or older is in the car. It also prohibits new drivers from driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., unless they are accompanied by someone 25 or older.

Schuler told the students the laws make a lot of sense and are written to protect them.

"It's just like when you learn to swim. Hopefully, your parents don't throw you in the English Channel and say, 'swim,'" she joked. "You graduate from wading to using floaties to swimming." 

Brian Bullock bbullock@leecentralcoastnews.com