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Driving programs aimed at young and old

Classes seek to keep drivers safe

POSTED: April 16, 2011 12:45 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Hall County firefighters load a victim, played by senior Brittney Batt, 18, onto a gurney Thursday during a dramatization of a car accident as part of the "Fatal Vision" program at Johnson High School. "Fatal Vision" is a crash simulation that shows students the consequences of dangerous driving.

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The music blared on the loud- speaker at Johnson High School's stadium, where the play on the field had nothing to do with a game.

When the smoke cleared, cars were mangled. Officers handcuffed a driver. Paramedics rushed to helplessness. A life perished.

"Please, God, don't let me be dead!" screamed Coral Ketner, 18, an actress from the high school's drama club. "I'm only 17."

The Johnson High School drama students presented the driving lesson to hundreds of their student peers as part of a countywide program sponsored by the Hall County Sheriff's Office. Curbing the number of teenage accidents is the goal.

"What you've seen is a demonstration," said Lt. Gene Joy, commander of school-based services for the sheriff's office.

"But it's realistic and accurate. Your responsible decision can be the difference."

The program was filled with the sorts of sensory images teenagers respond to: rock ballads, emotional appeals and violence.

But it may be the staid presentations delivered to Hall County's mature drivers that save lives, too. Today, they are a more vulnerable group, with older drivers making up the majority of wreck victims.

Between January and April, six people died in motor vehicle accidents on roads in Hall County. The average age of the three drivers killed in the crashes is 62.

Each driver was listed at fault, deputies said. Causes linked to the wrecks include running red lights, crossing the center line and overcorrecting after driving onto the shoulder, according to statistics compiled by the Sheriff's Office.

The reality is sobering for the men and women who are passionate about reaching older drivers. They may not realize how times have changed the rules of the road.

"The thing about older drivers is that what they learned as young drivers, in many cases, no longer applies," said Laura Nagel, a volunteer instructor for the AARP Driver Safety Program.

"So often we hear, ‘We'll that's not what I learned. I learned to pump my brakes. I learned to put my hand at these points in the steering wheel. I learned that you have to change your oil every 3,000 miles.' None of those things even apply any more. The technology of the automobile has progressed to the point where these things are just no longer true."

Nagel, 61, has begun appealing to a cross-section of drivers through classes geared to older drivers.

During a recent session held for members of the Chattahoochee Country Club, Nagel discussed her personal anecdotes with ease. Soon everyone was sharing their experiences as the instructor discussed strategies.

Nagel and Don Linnartz, who coordinates the AARP's
Georgia Driver Safety Program, touched upon dozens of topics including self-awareness, physical changes, the impact of prescription medications on driving and how cars today have changed driving altogether.

"What an older person feels best about is what he or she knows. Looking at the possibility that there is a whole learning curve ahead can be a little daunting," Nagel said.

"Yet, at the same time, if you have a classroom full of people who are in the same age group as you, it can be a wonderfully freeing kind of conversation to have. You find out there are other people sitting around the table who have experienced exactly the same kinds of frustrations."

Gainesville State College offers National Safety Council Defensive Driving clinics, which are also designed to reach a wide demographic of drivers.

A big priority is stressing what's called "distracted driving," said David Castaleini, a state-certified driver improvement instructor.

That kind of activity can include talking, texting and eating.

"That seems the to be the issue. We have forgotten how dangerous it is to drive a vehicle. We look at our vehicles now as an extension of our office and home," Castaleini said. "We eat, talk on the phone, do work in there and we're not focused on driving."

Just as Nagel does, Castaleini examines new motor vehicle laws as well as how people's driving styles are influenced by age, be they young or old, he added.

"People tend to drive selfishly," he said. "I say, ‘Hey, it's not just about you. It's everybody."

Adapting the lessons to the audiences is key, said Joy, who helped organized the Sheriff's Office efforts to reach every high school junior in the county.

Officers presented the challenge to the schools, which pieced together their own dramas on the subject.

Each Johnson actor and actress developed their own characters. One question served as the basis.

"If I got into a car crash with my friends, what would I do?" Amy Walls said.

Some members of the audiences admitted to believing the school function would be a drag.

But Sabrina Canup, for one, walked away with a new perspective.

It applies to every one who gets behind the wheel.

"You see crashes all the time, but you don't know what's going on the inside," Canup said. "There are just a lot more consequences than people realize."



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