Start Smart, CHP officer tells young drivers
California Highway Patrol Officer Brian Pennings spoke to Ramona High School students who would be taking to the road soon, or who already have, about how they could avoid tragedy.
Pennings opened his Start Smart program in the Ramona High School Performing Arts Wing (PAW) last Monday night with some information about who he is and how he became a CHP officer, but he soon launched into his lecture on keeping teenage drivers safe.
In the past 10 years, 69,000 U.S. teenagers have died in car crashes. The first year of driving is the worst for fatalities.
“You are more likely to die in the next 12 months than at any other time in your entire life,” Pennings told the estimated 300 teens and parents who filled the PAW.
Putting things in perspective, Pennings said that 69,000 is also the seating capacity of Qualcomm Stadium.
“Let’s fill it up with America’s teenagers and let’s wipe ‘em off the face of the Earth,” he said.
“It really opened my eyes about what could happen to me if I didn’t take every precaution that I could while I’m driving,” Dylan Blankenbaker said. “It really scared me, scared me to do the right thing, always put on my seatbelt and think of the people around me.”
Crashes have at least one of three factors in common: speed, seatbelts and drinking, said Pennings. And the reason teenagers are more susceptible to crashes is that their brains are not fully developed until they are about 25, which impairs their judgment.
The reason one’s insurance is cut in half at age 25 is rooted in science and is not an arbitrary decision, said Pennings.
CHP officers have three things in mind when working: safety, security and service, he said. “There is a direct correlation between enforcement and crashes.”
The CHP stops people for their protection, not to be a buzzkill, Pennings said, before showing a video of Red Asphalt V, the latest in the video series of horrific and often deadly crashes. He provided fair warning, giving people the opportunity to look away from a video that is “very real, and very emotional.”
The realization sank in that it could happen to anyone and affects everyone associated with that person. Suddenly the tone of the class became more personal, as everyone began thinking about how the consequences of not driving safely could affect them.
“The first thing I notice is the yellow body blanket,” Pennings said in describing his dealings with crashes.
That is immediately followed by “the smell of death,” he said But the bodies, the cleanup, the investigation, none of that is as difficult as informing the parents that their son or daughter has been killed in an avoidable crash.
To the CHP, there is no such thing as an accident. They are crashes caused by unsafe driving.
“He said there’s mistakes on your part…think of other people around you before you do something stupid in a car,” said Dylan.
“Do you think your actions just affect you?” Pennings asked, telling a story. The tragedy wasn’t just the death of the young man driving, or the injuries suffered by his passengers. It was the emotional trauma forced upon the 4- and 6-year-old sons of one of the females in the car.
As if to drive the point home, he showed a video of four “knuckleheads” attempting to knock a couple of kids off their bikes. The passenger opening the door fell out and was run over, and the rest were charged with manslaughter.
Pennings continued with a discussion on how being under the influence of any kind of drug can affect one’s driving. Certainly, some are more potent than others, but whether it is an illegal drug like marijuana or ecstasy, or a legal drug like alcohol or prescription medication, all impair judgment, and the effect is multiplied for teenagers, said Pennings. Regardless of how “stupid” the drug makes a person, driving while under the influence is a recipe for disaster. That is why it is illegal to operate a vehicle after using any of these drugs, and illegal to simply use most of them.
Something that leads to poor decisions and regrettable consequences should be avoided, said Pennings.
Later, he told the story of his friend Mark Van Bibber. Pennings said that, when Van Bibber tells his story, there isn’t a dry eye in the house, but he’d give it his best shot. Mark was a brilliant student, graduating with a 4.5 GPA. He also was a great athlete, the only person Pennings is familiar with who had been a four-year varsity letterman in three sports.
“He’s the kind of guy that every parent wishes their daughter would date,” said Pennings.
But when Mark failed to buckle up while napping in his car, he fell victim to a collision with a drunk driver that left him a quadriplegic. Now, he needs assistance for the everyday activities others take for granted.
Pennings’ final story was the most personal of all. When his grandmother made a left turn instead of yielding to oncoming traffic, she was met by a car travelling 55 mph. The woman in the other car was pregnant and her baby died. After several battles in court, the once millionaire grandparents of Pennings were reduced to the $120,000 value of their home and $60,000 in the bank.
These stories are not to scare students from driving, Pennings said. He just wanted to remind them that crashes can be avoided through safe driving.
Barbara Blankenbaker, Dylan’s mother, said the program was well put together and is valuable for teens and adults.
“It was inspiring, it was horrifying, all at the same time,” she said. “I even came away learning a few things that had never occurred to me. I had never thought about the fact that a person in a vehicle unrestrained would become a projectile.”
Pennings gave five methods he said would prevent nine of 10 possible crashes and eliminate them from responsibility if they were followed to the letter:
• Slow down, and follow the speed limit laws.
• Keep enough following distance to brake easily without hitting the car in front of you.
• Maximize your lateral space cushion by hugging the center of your lane, not the edge.
• Maintain a high visual horizon by looking as far down the road as possible, which is the most important thing a driver can do.
• When backing, always visually clear behind you before doing so.
The message was clear. Crashes happen all the time on the road, resulting in thousands of deaths each year. They hurt those involved in the crash and the people who care about them. And all of them can be avoided.
Dylan, who will start driving in July, is aware of the number of accidents and deaths on Ramona’s roads.
“There’s accidents all the time,” he said. “There were a lot of pictures that were really graphic. It really showed you what could happen to you.”
“When I get in a car now, I think about all the accidents that were shown and talked about, and I put on my seatbelt,” said Colton Houlihan, 15.
Ramona resident Margaret Scheib, the mother of a teenage driver, used to work with Pennings and asked him to give the presentation. When he agreed, she started an e-mail tree inviting parents and teens.
“They filled the PAW,” she said, estimated about 300 attended.
“I so highly recommend it,” said Barbara Blankenbaker. “I really wish we could get this here a couple times a year…It really makes you think before you get behind the wheel.”
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