Teen Driver Safety Campaign Creates Behavior Change in Michigan

Editor’s note: Inspired? These and other Project Ignition National Leader Schools are available to help you apply for a Project Ignition grant. Find information and other resources to build a high-quality proposal at www.sfprojectignition.com. Applications are due November 15.

By Natalie Waters Seum, Communications Consultant

Imagine poring over 10 years of data — police reports on car crashes involving teen drivers — as a teen. That’s what students in central Michigan’s Ionia County did to assess the level of need behind the issue.

Through Project Ignition, a teen driver safety service-learning grant program coordinated by the National Youth Leadership Council and funded by State Farm®, they are now instigating behavior change. As members of a Youth Advisory Council representing five high schools, 30 students created and now implement a comprehensive campaign called “Drive to Survive” that focuses on distracted driving, drinking and driving, seatbelt use, and speeding.

“Obtaining a drivers license… is central to most teenagers’ lives,” says Deb Wagner, director of grants and special projects for Ionia County Intermediate School District. “So it is not just another school project to them. It is deeply meaningful.”

After receiving their first grant in 2009, the students’ campaign was selected as one of the 10 best of the year. They were subsequently named a Project Ignition National Leader School for the program’s breadth, depth, and results. Components of the campaign have been imbedded into the five high schools’ health curriculum and broadcasting classes. Project Ignition is also part of the youth council’s leadership and social justice curriculum.

Within this diverse and engaging campaign, students gravitate to the projects they find most compelling. A public service announcement had a profound impact on student Chloe Alberta, and she was inspired to develop more. “I think using a PSA to send this message is one of the most powerful things we can do, because … almost everyone can relate to the message,” she said.

Other students have taken the lead on presenting in the community, nurturing partnerships, hosting a state-wide teen driver safety conference, educating parents, organizing all-school assemblies, or influencing legislation.

Ionia students also have been involved in Michigan’s enhanced Graduated Drivers Licensing Law that took effect March 30. They rallied support, and attended the signing by former Gov. Granholm. Perhaps most importantly, the students have been a force in educating their peers statewide about the impact and benefits of stronger restrictions. “The law will make our roads safer; we know for certain that we are making a measurable difference,” said student Macky Lynn.

And students are measuring that difference. Through an analysis of state police data, they have documented a 9 percent decrease in the number of teen-driver-related crashes in their county since they began the campaign two years ago. They also measure behavior changes through pre- and post-campaign surveys.

Wagner says that the students’ success has expanded the perception of what young people can accomplish. Students have even persuaded district administrators to provide them with the staff and space to work on teen driver safety year-round.

As Michael VanKeulen, NYLC’s Program Director, says: “Meaningful service must go beyond the appeal of the topic itself; it must reach toward producing meaningful, sustained change in the issue.”

This story first appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Generator.

Photo: Ionia students participate in simulation activity.