Students to show driving abilities behind the wheel

BROOKVILLE — Next month, teen drivers in Jefferson and Clarion counties will put their driving skills to the test for the annual Clar-Jeff Regional Safe Driving Competition.

But Jefferson County Sheriff Carl Gotwald thinks this year is more important than ever before because of two new state laws that affect teen drivers.

“There has been a lot of recent changes,” he said. “There have also been some very high-profile car accidents where kids have been killed. So I think it’s a good program to educate teen drivers.”

Today, Gov. Tom Corbett’s texting while driving law goes into effect, which prohibits the use of a cellular device while driving to send or receive text messages.

According to Bevi Powell, coordinator for the Indiana Regional Highway Safety Project, it takes about four to five seconds to send and receive a text message.

In that time, driving 55 mph, a person can cover the length of a football field, which is a “dangerous” situation, especially for a new driver, Powell said.

“New drivers don’t have the skills that an experienced driver has,” she said. “When you’re texting, not only do you physically take your hands away from the wheel, and your eyes from the roadway, your mind is consumed with texting, as well.”

Teen drivers participating in the competition, which is sponsored by Gotwald and Clarion County Sheriff Rex Munsee, and hosted by the Indiana Regional Highway Safety Project, will be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned as far as how to drive safely, which includes the elimination of texting.

It also includes eliminating the number of passengers from a new driver’s vehicle and wearing a seat belt, which are two parts of another new law targeting Pennsylvania teens, passed in December.

Act 81 states that drivers and occupants in a vehicle who are under the age of 18 must wear a properly adjusted and fastened seat belt, and children under the age of eight must be securely fastened in a child restraint system.

Failure to comply with the new law’s seat-belt provisions is a primary offense.

“Driver distraction can lead to crashes and highway deaths, so by eliminating those distractions, it can prevent accidents,” Powell said.

The competition will be held April 20 at the Heritage House in Brookville.

Licensed juniors and seniors from 12 high schools will demonstrate their abilities by driving through an obstacle course set up by the Pennsylvania Motor Trucking Association (PMTA).

Students will also be tested on information from a video, and will be required to write an essay on highway safety.

Gotwald said he’s also hoping to demonstrate what it’s like to drive while under the influence of alcohol through the use of beer goggles.

“The purpose of the competition is for the students to become better drivers,” Powell said. “This is to help them feel more confident when they go out on the highway. This gives them more experience.”

The competition also gives juniors and seniors the opportunity to win a $1,000 scholarship in the local event and to qualify to compete for $5,000 at the Pennsylvania Safe Driving Competition for Youth which will take place in May in Harrisburg.

First-, second- and third-place winners will be recognized, and a traveling trophy will be sent to the school with the highest scoring students.

Participants will also receive T-shirts, safety kits and door prizes will also be available.

Powell said pre-registration is already complete, but she is still accepting applications from Jefferson and Clarion county students.

Those interested must have a clean driving record and can contact their respective high school Driver’s Ed teacher or guidance counselor, Gotwald or Munsee, or Powell at 724-357-4877.

“It’s a very effective program,” Powell said. “It’s a great event for the students to demonstrate what they’ve learned as far as how to drive safely and gives them a great opportunity to show their skills and also to win some nice scholarships for the future.”