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Behind the wheel: Drive to save lives

Brittany Lacey, left, and Evan Teich, right, perform

Brittany Lacey, left, and Evan Teich, right, perform "And These, Our Friends" for students. Members of Theatre Three, a Port Jefferson production company, were performing the safe-driving play for a student audience at the Brookside District Building in North Merrick. (May 27, 2011) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

A teenage boy is pressuring his girlfriend to get into the car with him after he's been drinking. "I drive better wasted than you do sober," he tells her. "Nothing's going to happen. Trust me."

She initially resists, and he persists. "Do I have to pick you up and put you in the car?" he asks. She caves in and enters the simulated car -- two chairs on the stage in front of students at the Meadowbrook Alternative Program of the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District.

"I know that I would never do that," says senior Brianna Lent, 17, of Bellmore, who is watching the performance of "And These, Our Friends" one recent schoolday. "But the truth, though, is that stuff like that happens."

The days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are the 100 deadliest days for teen drivers, and this play performed by Theatre Three of Port Jefferson travels to schools to lower the average eight people between the ages of 16 and 19 killed per day nationwide in vehicle accidents.

New and old initiatives combine to try to make driving as safe as possible during the season of proms, graduations, summer barbecues and more. At Shoreham-Wading River High School, this is the second year seniors have participated in a "Driving While Informed" program in which they put on "beer goggles" that simulate an elevated blood alcohol content and then try to drive a golf cart through an obstacle course to understand what it means to be impaired. At Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, students in health class watch an "Oprah" episode on the dangers of texting and driving.

"Many of these tragedies are preventable," says Wendy Tepfer, director of the nonprofit Community Parent Center in North Merrick, which offers educational programs.

Here's how parents can reinforce such lessons at home.

Investigate contracts that students sign pledging not to drink and drive -- or more recently, text and drive.

Consider new technological advances such as Ford Motor Co.'s MyKey system, which allows the parent to program the teen's key to limit the car's top speed and audio volume and keeps the audio system muted until the safety belt is buckled.

Realize it's not just alcohol and drug abuse or texting and driving that parents need to fear. It's also teenage bravado, sense of invincibility, neglect of wearing seat belts, wanting to impress the opposite sex and general inexperience behind the wheel. "Unless they're going to be in Iraq or Iran with the military, a car is going to be the most powerful weapon they're ever going to handle," Tepfer says. "Ten seconds can change their lives forever."

Start teaching even before a child gets a permit. When he's a passenger, talk about scenarios as you're driving and why you are making decisions you make. Once your child is behind the wheel, occasionally ask your teen to comment out loud on what he or she is seeing and thinking about to ensure the teen is paying attention and thinking ahead.

Never allow your teen to be the designated driver, even if he or she has a license, says Neil Miller, a driver education teacher at Schreiber High School. Teens are rarely able to handle such a responsibility, he says. Parents or guardians or even cabs are a better choice for evening rides, as the majority of fatal teen crashes happen at night, he says.

Make it clear that they should call you to pick them up at any hour if they are uncomfortable getting in the car with a drunk friend, or if they themselves are impaired. Ashley Handwerker, 17, a junior from North Bellmore, says she has called her mom to pick her under such circumstances. Says Mom Ellen Hirsh: "I was proud of her for calling me."

Repeat the lessons periodically. "They require constant reinforcement," Tepfer says.

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