Program drives home dangers of distractions Teen Driver Challenge teaches high school students safety

Michael D. Bates / Citrus Chronicle

Austin Poppleton, 17, said there is no way he will ride in a vehicle if the driver is fumbling around with a cellphone. He’ll tell the driver, forcefully if need be, to either hand it over or let him do the texting.

“I’ll make them listen,” said Poppleton, a Lecanto High School student. “If they don’t, I’ll grab the phone out of their hands.”

Poppleton saw videos this week in his Teen Driver Challenge course that showed the dangers of distracted drivers using cell phones. That message, he said, hammered home the point.

“We have to pay attention to be safe on the road,” he said.

Poppleton was part of a group of about a dozen high school teens at Lecanto High on Wednesday taking part in the challenge course, which teaches 16- to 19-year-olds the dangers of speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, texting while driving and distracted driving. After the coursework and videos, it was off to the driving range where they learned crash-avoidance tips.

Sierra Moerschbacher, 18, said the course has taught her to be aware at all times of the distractions that can occur while driving. Improper cell phone use tops that list, she said.

“I don’t think people really know how deadly it is,” Moerschbacher said. “I’ll definitely be thinking twice about responding to a cell phone when it goes off when I’m driving.”

To avoid temptation, Moerschbacher said she may stash her phone in the back seat or somewhere out of reach so she won’t automatically pick it up while driving.

With youths getting cellphones at ever-younger ages — sometimes as early as fifth grade — it’s more vital than ever to educate them on the dangers of distracted driving, said Nancy Suto, crime prevention deputy with the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office.

Suto sits on the state committee for the Florida Sheriff’s Association Teen Driver Challenge, a free program created in 2007 that has been adopted by Citrus and 33 other counties in Florida. The program is led by sheriffs’ deputies who are licensed as commercial driving school instructors.

Students are familiarized with a host of driving situations and navigate cones set up on the driving course. On Wednesday, for example, Training Deputy Jim McIntyre was teaching students the fine art of forward and reverse serpentine driving using their vehicle’s mirrors.

“Distracted driving is a huge issue and it’s one of the biggest things we cover in our teen driver program,” Suto said.

State and national data is irrefutable: Teens, especially during their first year of driving, are involved in more traffic crashes than any other age group.

In 2016, drivers ages 20–24 were responsible for the highest number of distracted-driving crashes, followed closely by 25– to 29-year-olds and 15– to 19-year-olds. In fact, drivers under the age of 30 accounted for more than 20,000 distracted driving crashes, of which, 13,514 were from inattentiveness or not being focused on driving.

During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving. Teens were the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes, according to the NHTS.

The course made quite an impression on Laxmi Purohit, 18, who attends Lecanto High. She said she won’t answer a cell phone if it rings while driving.

“I’ll just pull over,” she said.

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-3205,


* Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers. About 25-30 percent of teen drivers will be involved in a crash within the first 12 months of getting their operator’s license.

Source: The Centers for Disease Control’s Motor Vehicle Safety Division

* The Teen Driver Challenge is offered year-round at all three Citrus County high schools. On average, about 400 students a year go through the program. For more information, contact the school resource officer or call the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office at 352-726-4488.

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