About a week after the fiery car accident that killed Franklin County High School seniors Ben Laslie, Nick Jacoby and Allen Williams in April 2011, then-sophomore Marci Beason found a piece of the wreckage in her backyard.
It was a mangled headlight – one scrap of debris among many strewn across the lawn of her U.S. 421 home where the accident happened.
Beason took the shards of plastic to school that day and set them in a memorial case for the boys, hoping they would serve as a reminder and a caution.
If there’s anything that will motivate someone to drive safely, it’s a personal connection to tragedy, she says.
Now, Beason and two other local students have put that motivation to action, serving as representatives in the Kentucky State Police Drive to Stay Alive program going on this week at KSP headquarters.
Kaitlyn Hager and Ryan Simpson, both seniors at Western Hills High School, have joined FCHS senior Beason and 27 other teens from around the state for the four-day defensive driving academy for teens that combines educational instruction and actual experience (tests on the KSP road course in Richmond).
Students checked in at KSP Wednesday for two days of classroom teaching to be followed by two days on the road course.
Road course driving includes training in skid control, backing, off-road recovery, evasive maneuvers and controlled braking. Students are coached by the same instructors that train KSP troopers.
“Our goal is that every one of the students that leaves here will know how to handle those situations,” said Sherry Bray, media coordinator at the KSP Highway Safety Branch.
Classroom lessons include seatbelt safety, the causes of wrecks, aggressive and distracted driving and more. Students also learn how to share the information they’ve learned with their communities – the program’s real goal.
“The effectiveness of the program is based on the concept that a message conveyed by a fellow student carries more weight with other students and is therefore more memorable,” says Sgt. Rick Saint-Blancard, KSP public affairs branch commander, in a press release.
Simpson was already forming ideas about his outreach slogan Thursday (“Click your belt or the pain will be felt”) and Hager and Beason were making plans to give presentations to their respective student bodies.
“Over the past two years, I think I’ve lost nine or 10 friends,” Hager said. “Most of them have been to car wrecks because someone was driving under the influence or not paying attention – just preventable stuff.
“It’s not a game. People turn 16 and can drive so they think about independence, but it’s much more.”
After seeing several graphic videos, Beason and Simpson agreed with Hager’s sentiment.
“The things we watched – you don’t want to see that in real life,” Beason said.
“These are real accidents, real injury, real death,” Simpson added. “It’s a serious thing.”
And if any of the academy’s students couldn’t make a personal connection to the serious need for safe driving, speaker Wil Craig changed that quickly.
Some may have seen the dynamic 22-year-old from Louisville in national AT&T commercials about texting and driving.
In the ad, Craig, clad in a black T-shirt, shakily holds up a sign with the letters “where r” as he explains the story of the car accident that changed his life.
On their way to the movies, Craig’s girlfriend began texting while she drove down the highway. Already at 105 mph, she lost control and went airborne into a tree at 120 mph.
The girl walked away unhurt, but Craig, the passenger, suffered a traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung and several broken ribs. Having died and been revived three times on scene, Craig was given a 4 percent chance of survival.
When he woke from an eight-week coma, doctors told Craig’s family he’d never walk, talk or graduate high school.
That was in 2008. Now, he walks – though with a hitch because of his brain injury – talks slowly but clearly and is taking classes at Jefferson Community Technical College.
Craig began speaking to high school students after AT&T signed him up for a 15-city tour in 2011, and says he loves his life of advocacy.
“If you close your eyes for five seconds when you’re driving at 55 mph, you know how far you went? A whole football field. And if you text and drive, you’re 23 times more likely to get into an automobile accident.
“Those two statistics are pretty easy to remember, but people might not always remember them. They’ll always remember my story that impacted them though. They’ll always remember the words I say.”
There have been 169 crashes in Franklin County so far in 2012 involving teen drivers that have resulted in 32 injuries. In 2011, there were 286 collisions, resulting in 53 injuries and four fatalities.
To find out more about the KSP Drive to Stay Alive program, including information about student eligibility requirements, visit www.kentuckystatepolice.org or call 502-782-1799.
To take the pledge with Craig against texting and driving, visit www.itcanwait.com.