For the past 10 years or so, Duluth Police Lt. Bill Stevens has coordinated and managed the Operation Drive Smart program for teen drivers at high schools in Gwinnett County and throughout Georgia. He was recently notified that the state had eliminated funding for Drive Smart, jeopardizing the program for next year.
Drive Smart received $39,400 in 2012 to present a minimum of programs at 15 schools, but actually plans to visit 16 to 18 schools, Stevens said.
The program has received about that same amount every year for the past decade from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, he said. An initial grant of $5,000 in 1999 was used to develop Operation Drive Smart with student input at Duluth High School, Stevens said.
Over a 10-year period, Operation Drive Smart has benefited 160,000 students through 150 programs presented at 92 schools statewide, Stevens said. “Every year we’ve had to turn down schools,” he said. “This year we had to turn down five schools.”
In addition to Duluth HS, nearby high schools where Drive Smart has been presented include Archer, Berkmar, Central Gwinnett, Collins Hill, Grayson, Mountain View, Norcross, North Gwinnett, and South Gwinnett. The program has also been provided to high schools in Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Roswell, and Marietta as well as others throughout the metro Atlanta area and the state.
To continue the program, Stevens is applying for private grants and seeking three $15,000 sponsors to subsidize it. He plans to target auto insurance companies, cell phone providers, and alcoholic beverage distributors, he said.
“We’ve emailed all the schools in the state that the funding for the program is going to be cut and that we’re attempting to find [new] funding,” Stevens said. “The Duluth Police Department can’t be expected to fund a statewide program.”
“If nothing pops up between now and September, that’s it [the end of the program],” he said.
Schools have been able to choose from three Operation Drive Smart courses.
The first titled “In a Split Second” focuses on warning teen drivers about distractions that can kill them in an instant -- talking on their cell phones, texting, tuning the radio, just daydreaming, and other passengers in the car -- as well as using drugs and alcohol, Stevens said. “They run off the road, lose control of the vehicle, hit a tree or a telephone pole, and the car flips over.”
If the driver and all the passengers aren’t wearing seat belts, they likely will be thrown out of the car and crushed by it or killed by the impact of another passenger or a heavy book bag, he said.
Stevens and three other officers who comprise the Duluth Police Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) travel to the schools to give the programs. The state funding covered their time, travel expenses, gasoline, supplies, and student incentives such as Operation DriveSmart T-shirts and keychains, he said. Stevens is commander of the Duluth COPS Division.
The second choice is an Operation Drive Smart Expo involving educational booths and demonstrations presented by the Georgia State Patrol, local law enforcement agencies, fire departments, paramedics, airlift transport, and hospital emergency room personnel. The Georgia Motor Trucking Association and Norfolk Southern Railroad also participate, Stevens said.
The Duluth PD provides a customized golf cart/simulator that allows students to experience how drinking alcoholic beverages affects their driving as they attempt to navigate a course defined by cones. A rollover simulator allows them to experience the traumatic effects of a vehicle turning over. The specialty golf court was acquired through a fundraiser, Stevens said, and a private grant funded purchase of the rollover simulator.
The third option is classroom education that includes an overview of teen driving laws along with the consequences and penalties that result from violating traffic laws and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, he said.
“My philosophy is that if you educate teenage drivers and mentor to them, they’re going to make the right choices,” Stevens said.