ST. CHARLES COUNTY • With homecoming festivities looming for many high school students across the St. Louis area, police in one school district are trying a new approach to keeping teen drivers alive — tracking their accidents.
Believed to be the first program of its kind in the area, police said Wednesday they will begin tracking all crashes involving students in the five Fort Zumwalt District high schools. Officials acknowledge monitoring all accidents will be difficult, but they expect cooperation from area police and the students themselves.
By spring and prom season, police will compare data — analyzing the causes of each crash — to see which school's student body has the safest overall driving record. Police also plan to compile data through random seat belt checks on high school parking lots as students leave campuses. The school judged the safest will win tickets to a Cardinals, Blues or Rams game.
"We're gonna make sure that when we meet again in the spring, that every single one of you is here," O'Fallon, Mo., Patrolman Jeff Cook told students Wednesday morning at Fort Zumwalt South High School.
The new program, called Project Safe School Year, started Wednesday. It challenges students to eliminate driving while intoxicated, fasten seat belts and nix cell phones behind the wheel.
The program was developed in part by Travis Jones, a former St. Charles County sheriff's deputy who now trains Marine Corps civilian police officers and works part time for the Cottleville Police Department.
"I didn't like doing death notifications as an officer, and I don't think any officer likes doing those, so hopefully this program will keep a student or two safer," Jones said.
The program will be introduced at the other Fort Zumwalt schools soon and also may expand to Francis Howell schools later this fall, Jones said. The goal is for the program to catch on in other St. Louis-area districts. It is funded through a state highway safety grant and corporate donations.
Keeping teens safe behind the wheel has always been a concern at high schools. Traditional approaches have included T-shirt distribution, club activities and assemblies before events such as prom and graduation.
Students interviewed after the assembly at Fort Zumwalt South said they thought the new program could be effective.
"I think it's sending a message out for sure to those people who might drink and drive," said freshman Connor Mauck, 14.
Distracted-driving deaths nationally fell 6 percent in 2009 from the year before but were still up 22 percent since 2005, the U.S. Transportation Department said in a report Monday. Crashes involving drivers younger than 20 were higher than for any other age group, and cell phones were cited in 995 overall traffic deaths and 24,000 injuries last year.
Texting while driving was outlawed in Illinois this year, while Missouri law bars drivers 21 and younger from texting behind the wheel.
Alcohol-related crashes killed 265 people in Missouri last year and injured 4,358.
On Wednesday, hundreds of students at Fort Zumwalt South High watched a slideshow of wreckage from several crashes in St. Charles County that killed young people.
One of the images was of a car ripped apart when it struck a utility pole Oct. 14, 2005, killing Zachary Huggins, 22, of St. Charles. The driver of the car had been drinking and pleaded guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Huggins' mother, Pam, had just told students about the night he left to watch a ballgame on television with a friend and never returned.
"He thought he was invincible, that it's not going to happen to me," Huggins said. "I've got news for you. It does happen if you drink, do drugs and drive. There are good choices and bad choices. We're trying to teach you to make the right choice."