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Steering clear of distracted driving

Course shows teens importance of staying alert behind the wheel

KEARNS — The proof was in the pudding that was all over Courtney McAfee's face.

The Kearns High senior tried to open the snack with her teeth as she maneuvered through the school's driving course Tuesday. Her face — along with some orange cones — paid the price.

Motor vehicle crashes are the biggest killer of America's teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And driver error — not alcohol — is the biggest reason why more than 5,000 teens have died in each of the last 10 years, according to a study by the Allstate Foundation.

"A lot of parents mistakenly think (alcohol) is the No. 1 cause, but that's not the case," said Melissa Stoloff, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

To prove that point, a handful of Kearns students piled into their cars, pulled out their cell phones and cranked up their radios, all while trying to slalom through "orange cone children" and avoid accidents Tuesday.

Brian Sanders, 17, had trouble just trying to open a bag of Doritos.

"It's crazy. I didn't even get the bag of chips open," he said after finishing a run. "It shows you that you need to pay more attention."

In the Salt Lake area, failing to buckle up was a factor in 38.5 percent of fatal crashes, while alcohol was involved in less than 8 percent of those crashes, according to a 2008 Allstate study. Nationally, alcohol is a factor in about a quarter of teen fatalities, according to the CDC.

Utah has a lower rate of teen driving fatalities than the U.S. average, with 22.2 deaths per 100,000 teens each year compared to the national average of 30.1, according to the study.

Eating, using cell phones and iPods and listening to loud friends are common distractions for any teen driver, Sanders said. And those distractions can be deadly.

Stoloff said graduated driver's license programs have helped limit fatalities by putting restrictions on when teens can drive and how many passengers are allowed in their cars. She said she hopes Tuesday's event will help teens put down their cell phones and other distractions and have the courage to tell their friends to do the same.

McAfee, 17, said she has been driving for nearly two years and considers herself safe behind the wheel. She doesn't have a cell phone, and she limits multitasking to times when the road is straight.

Still, she said Tuesday's exercise opened her eyes some to the dangers of distractions.

"It makes you aware that this is what other people are doing," she said.


E-mail: afalk@desnews.com