Empowering High School Students to Educate their Peers about Safe Driving

  • Sandi Smith, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Department of Communication
  • Director, Health and Risk Communication Center
  • College of Communication Arts and Sciences
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While driving is considered a rite of passage for many teenagers, the rise in distracted driving is making this privilege increasingly risky. To help reverse this dangerous trend, the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning (OHSP) created the Strive for a Safer Drive (S4SD) program, modeled after Illinois' Operation Teen Safe Driving Program, in which high school students develop and run their own traffic safety campaigns to encourage their peers to drive safely. The program is a collaborative effort of the Michigan OHSP, Ford Motor Company, AAA of Michigan, and MSU's Health and Risk Communication Center (HRCC), directed by Dr. Sandi Smith.

Smith is widely recognized for her research and work promoting safe and healthy behaviors and has already led the HRCC in several school-based public health projects. Because of her background and expertise, officials from the Michigan OHSP approached her about administering the S4SD program. After Smith applied for and received a grant from the OHSP, her graduate and undergraduate students working on the grant began to develop a protocol for implementing the program in Michigan high schools located in counties with the most teen traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

According to Smith, "We specifically look for S.A.D.D. leadership or service clubs that already have objectives that are aligned with our project aims, although any student group may participate."

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Schools that are recruited apply for a $2,000 grant, funded by AAA of Michigan, which is used to purchase promotional items, such as T-shirts and banners, and to plan school-wide educational events, such as assemblies with guest speakers. After a team of MSU graduate students, supervised by Smith, reviews the applications, they begin to work one-on-one with the schools, helping each team of students develop a successful campaign to promote safer driving habits among their peers. This involves serving as project managers for each school's team, handling recruitment, special event scheduling, and evaluation.

"The goal of the program is to empower students to educate their peers," said Smith. "And the [MSU] students serve as a resource to the high schools to make sure students have all of the tools and guidance they may need."

For Rebecca Gidley, this year's lead graduate student on the project, getting out to the schools to support the teams is most exciting. "It's extremely rewarding to witness firsthand how passionate the student teams are about their campaign messages and goals," she said. "They are truly eager to increase traffic safety awareness and safe driving behaviors among their peers. Experiencing their campaign plans come to life makes all of the hard work throughout the rest of the year worthwhile."

"U txt...Ur nxt!"

The teams base their campaigns on one risky driving topic, such as speeding, impaired driving, or distracted driving. "Texting is a very popular topic," said Smith. "It is new and the severity creates a buzz. It is also something that many of our audience fall prey to."

The teams have come up with some great campaign ideas, such as "U txt...Ur nxt!" and "Captain Caution," but the key is getting their fellow students to pay attention. "One of the biggest challenges our teams face in executing a successful campaign is ensuring their messages are received by their peers and that they are effective in persuading other students to improve their traffic safety behaviors," explained Gidley. "High schools are incredibly busy and our teams must find ways to incorporate their campaigns into existing guidelines and schedules in order to be noticed by their peers."

The teams are provided with tools to help develop their campaigns. These tools include Ford Driving Skills for Life program and AAA of Michigan's Keys2Drive program. Also, Michigan's OHSP provides numerous contacts for the grad students and handles the communication and press releases.

Linda Fech is the teen traffic safety program coordinator for the Michigan OHSP. She works directly with Gidley to build and brand the S4SD program. "We spent a considerable amount of time this past summer reviewing the recruitment process and developing procedures to increase school participation," explained Fech. "I provided traffic safety information to develop a resource document to help schools build successful campaigns." The recruitment efforts are paying off. "The steady increase in school participation has been wonderful," she said. "The nice thing about this program is teens listen to other teens so the impact is much greater than if an adult teaches the program. In the 2011/2012 school year, we had 16 schools; the 2012/2013 school year had 34 schools; and the 2013/2014 school year has 43 schools participating."

Leadership, Creativity, and Ideas for Change

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At the end of the program, students submit a report and video about their campaign. MSU students initially review and score the reports, and send the top campaign portfolios to the judges at Ford, AAA, and the OHSP. After the winners are announced, all participating schools are invited to attend the Ford Ride and Drive event at the Ford Proving Grounds, where students receive advanced driver's training from professionals. "It's amazing to see how creative these kids are. The Ford Ride and Drive at the end of the year is a huge benefit too. The kids have a great time learning about traffic safety and it's so nice to see the excitement on their faces and hear the heartfelt thank you's when they leave the Ride and Drive event," said Fech.

The S4SD program is in its third year in Michigan, and while formal outcomes have not yet been reported, Smith is excited about the impact the program is having on the students and the schools. The schools are seeing an area of growth in a tough financial time when budgets are being cut. "It's exciting to see money go back into schools," said Smith. "And in some cases, helping them fund resources that they might otherwise go without."

But the biggest growth is in the students themselves. The opportunities to take on leadership roles, develop creativity, and lead their schools in ideas for change, are—according to Smith—some of the important ways students have been impacted by a program that is both saving lives and changing lives.

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of the S4SD Program

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