By Kelsey Bartlett
The school year is already under way for Roanoke County students, and on Sept. 8, Salem City Schools will start back as well.
Summer is notoriously the most dangerous time of year for teen drivers, but as the leaves begin to change and football season kicks into gear, teen drinking spikes, according to Youth of Virginia Speak Out About Traffic Safety (YOVASO) officials.
YOVASO is a program that works directly with students to change attitudes about safe driving through peer-to-peer advocacy.
“To have your friend say, ‘Hey, that’s really dangerous, you really should slow down,’ they’re more likely to listen their peers than an adult perspective,”’ said Casey Palmer, who is the YOVASO program development coordinator.
YOVASO began in 2000 after a 39 percent increase in the state’s teen fatality rate. The Virginia State Police Association began administering the program in 2014. Since 2007, teen fatalities in Virginia have declined from 133 to 64 in 2013. In 2014, 23,251 crashes in Virginia involved a teen driver. Sixty-seven teen drivers were killed in Virginia during that time period, and 7,662 were injured. Of those injuries, 952 were considered serious.
Many schools throughout the valley have YOVASO clubs, and programs are available even to middle school students. Callie Clary, a YOVASO regional trainer, says it is important to be cautious from an early age, because being a good passenger can lead to better driving habits down the line. Statistics show that pedestrians under 15 are more likely to be injured in a crash.
Although cellphones are obviously still a huge concern among the younger generation, more than anything, the program stresses the importance of buckling up. In 2015, 53 percent of motor vehicle fatalities in Virginia were unrestrained, and 55 percent were speed related. Twenty-eight percent were alcohol related.
YOVASO preaches the “5 to drive,” which includes always buckling up, limiting passengers, putting down the phone, driving the speed limit and avoiding drugs and alcohol. According to the program, the likelihood of teen drivers engaging in risky behavior directly correlates with the number of passengers in the car. Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among teens, and YOVASO’s mission is to educate, encourage and empower teenagers.
“Our mission is to reduce the number of teen traffic fatalities throughout the state,” Palmer said. “That’s our main goal. Our campaigns that we do throughout the year are how we achieve that goal.”
According to statistics, 74.6 percent of fatal crashes involving a teen in 2014 were male drivers, and 76.3 of deaths were male, a statistic Palmer and Clary hope to change this year.
“There’s a huge gap between males and females,” Clary said. “That’s something that I know we’ve talked about working on this school year, is targeting males and explaining and trying to reach out to them so we can lower those numbers.”
One upcoming YOVASO event to help start the school year off right is “Save Your Tail-Gate, Buckle Up!” which kicks off Sept. 14-Oct. 9. It is a competition between participating Virginia high schools to increase overall seatbelt usage. Schools that would like to participate but cannot complete all campaign components can still do so without competing. For information about prizes and registration, visit http://www.yovaso.org/event/save-your-tail-gate-buckle-up-campaign/.
For more information about how to start a YOVASO club at a local school or how to become a student leader or adult volunteer, visit http://www.yovaso.org/get-involved/.