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A year without death: How teens were saved

Published 8/3/2007
The Dispatch/The Rock Island Argus

PEKIN, Ill. (AP) -- Tazewell County Coroner Dennis Conover quietly called the sheriff and a state police commander about a month ago, reminding them of a milestone too grim to celebrate but too happy to ignore.

'I asked if they knew what today was. We were all afraid to say it out loud. We didn't want to jinx it,' Conover said.

On July 3, the central Illinois county marked a year with no teen traffic deaths, following a numbing 16-month span from March 2005 to July 2006 when 15 teens were killed in crashes that gained national attention amid growing worries about young, inexperienced drivers.

Officials say Tazewell County halted the deadly run with a collection of education and safety initiatives, including some that will help build a new statewide safe driving program for teens that the Illinois Department of Transportation plans to roll out later this year.

'Tazewell County should be a model. They proved that when everyone works together we can be successful ... But the lesson we need to learn from this is that we shouldn't wait for tragedy,' said Mike Stout, director of the IDOT's division of traffic safety.

This largely rural county just south of Peoria typically sees just one or two teen traffic deaths a year. Its nine teen fatalities in 2006 were the third most for a county in the state, despite a population that ranks 15th among Illinois's 102 counties at about 130,000.

'This is a small area, so it touched everyone. If they didn't know the person they knew someone who knew them, so that really brought it home,' said Sara Sparkman of the Tazewell County Health Department, who works with a youth board comprised of students from every county school.

As the death toll climbed, a meeting to explore possible solutions last year drew a crowd of about 80 people representing schools, law enforcement, transportation, emergency services and other agencies.

Officials say the meeting yielded a laundry list of initiatives and a unified push to curb a wave of fatal accidents caused by driver inexperience, speeding, lack of seat belts, drugs and alcohol.

Posters promoting safe driving went up in school hallways, along with signs in parking lots reminding drivers to buckle up. Public service announcements and billboards followed.

Police landed grants to beef up speeding enforcement on rural roads where the bulk of the wrecks occurred. A new web site and toll-free phone line encourage anonymous tips to stifle underage drinking parties.

Driving safety was pushed at school assemblies and even football games, where police and the coroner took the microphone before kickoff. Engineers began mapping out safety improvements for dangerous rural roads.

Corporations also joined Tazewell County's effort to counter the wave of wrecks, the No. 1 killer of U.S. teens, with 151 deaths last year in Illinois.

Bloomington-based State Farm Insurance Co. chipped in about $50,000 for educational programs and a simulator that stages low-speed crashes to encourage seat belt use. A local car dealer donated a new car for a raffle among students who ended the school year with no traffic tickets and good grades.

The Ford Motor Company Fund pumped about $200,000 into a contest among county schools that offered prizes for the best safe-driving campaigns, along with a hands-on program to improve driving skills that usually sets up in larger cities.

'The sheer magnitude of this many teens dying in a rural community really got everyone's attention,' said Jim Graham, manager of the Ford Fund's Driving Skills for Life program.

The parents of one victim launched a campaign of their own that has played in 35 schools since 15-year-old Ashley Waddell died when the car she was riding in slammed into a tree on Sept. 28, 2005.

Randy and Cathy Waddell of rural Tremont spend about 90 minutes telling students about their daughter and how her death affected the people she left behind. They cap the program by taking students outside to see the car she died in - nearly split in half by the high-speed crash.

'Our daughter is not just another statistic,' Randy Waddell said. 'She's out there saving lives. If her story saves just one life per presentation, that's 35 lives now. How many marriages is that, how many children and grandchildren?'

Officials say the efforts have succeeded by raising safety awareness among teens and their parents and by curbing speeding, the main cause in eleven of the 15 teen deaths. But they worry that their message might dim as memories of the fatal crashes fade - and so vow to continue the safety campaign.

'We don't want to get complacent. We want to make sure students hear that constant reminder _ drive safely, please drive safely,' said Robin Houchin, Tazewell County's regional school superintendent.

Officials say teen driving safety will get another boost if Gov. Rod Blagojevich signs a bill that would toughen restrictions on teen drivers, including nine months of training instead of three, to get a license.

Secretary of State Jesse White pushed the measure, in part, based on the deaths in Tazewell County, spokesman Henry Haupt said. Blagojevich spokesman Gerardo Cardenas said the governor is still reviewing the bill, but supports efforts to improve teen driving safety.

Sarah Payton, a senior at Deer Creek-Mackinaw High School and secretary of Tazewell County's youth board, said only a prolonged push will keep teen traffic deaths in check.

'I just want everyone to be safe. I don't want our communities to have to go through what they've had to go through,' said Payton, who lost a friend in the series of crashes.

Conover, in his first term as coroner after seven years as chief deputy, agreed.

'Kids are not supposed to die,' Conover said. 'They make one bad decision and it costs them their life. It's just not fair. So I can't see the people involved not continuing the fight.'

Copyright © 2007 Moline Dispatch Publishing Company

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