Laredo high school student Mercurio Martinez IV was tragically killed in 2008 when a distracted driver hit his car. Determined to do something in his memory, Martinez’s devastated classmates approached their high school principal about participating in the Teens in the Driver Seat® (TDS) program. Created by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), this innovative peer-to-peer program educates students about a wide range of safe driving practices in ways that work. An analysis found that Texas counties within which TDS had been implemented for three or more years experienced an average 14.5% decline in overall injury and fatal crashes. With this level of success, it’s not surprising that TDS is a national model, earning more than 20 awards and enjoying recognition from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Safety Council and the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration. TDS currently serves approximately 1,000 Texas schools and has a strong foothold in Georgia, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado as well. The program is also expanding into middle schools and higher education. The program’s funding has traditionally come from state and federal sources along with some corporate support from companies like State Farm. Recently, TTI leaders realized that partnering with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit could lead to additional private funding for innovation and expansion. Enter the Texas A&M Foundation, which holds that tax status. The Foundation’s development officers are working with TTI leaders to identify individuals, corporate donors and nonprofits interested in promoting teen safety. The two organizations have achieved early success, thanks to a grant from Union Pacific to create a railroad safety component, expand current bicycle and pedestrian safety efforts, and assist with ongoing development of the TDS smartphone app. This new TTI-Texas A&M Foundation partnership has also resulted in General Motors becoming a new sponsor of this effort.
TDS’s genesis began in 2001 in the wake of a string of car crashes that killed 10 San Antonio teens over a six-week period. “As a father, both of my children were very young at that point,” said TTI Program Manager Russell Henk ’87. “I was watching the coverage, and it was literally making me sick to my stomach seeing the families’ grief.” These incidents are not uncommon; car crashes remain the top killer of teens, causing one-third of all teen deaths annually in the United States. The most common causes of these crashes are: Spurred by the San Antonio crashes, Henk took on the challenge of developing a program that would effectively educate and activate teen drivers as young safety ambassadors. “I wanted to find a new solution,” the senior research engineer said. “Peer-to-peer-based outreach had been really effective for things like teen pregnancy and smoking, but we’d never really used it to address car crashes.” The TTI team worked with an advisory committee of high school students to create a variety of activities and resources that student-led teams at participating schools can use to encourage classmates to adopt safe driving habits. “This effort is important because as teenagers, we are barely starting to get on the road and become independent, which comes with many responsibilities that most people aren't aware of,” said Jose Gutierrez, a senior at Harlingen High School South and co-chair of the TDS Teen Advisory Board. “Sometimes we forget that every time we are behind the wheel, it is our job to make the right choices to ensure the safety of everyone in the car and on the roads.” TDS has created a number of resources to raise awareness, including targeted outreach activities, simulations, virtual reality headsets, recognition programs, cash awards, scholarships, a toolkit, promotional materials and a national summit for teen leaders. “Students respond positively to our outreach activities,” said Alyssa Noland, a math teacher and TDS sponsor at Georgia’s Chattahoochee High School. “Our students love the safe-driving Valentines and the Commit-mint to Buckle Up, which are cards that students make using the TDS stickers. The students then attach a mint and hand it out to their peers.” In addition, TDS specifically addresses key danger points through targeted campaigns, such as Zero Crazy (encouraging use of seat belts), Respect the Rig (navigating around large trucks) and Rail Safety (remaining safe around railroad tracks). TTI is now working on a new campaign focused on growing concerns around pedestrian and bicycle safety. Additionally, a TDS smartphone app, which offers incentives for students to put down their cell phones while driving, is popular among teens. These messages have been heard by students. “My friends are putting their phones down and not texting,” said Eva Ellenburg, a high school junior at Pepperell High School in Lindale, Georgia, and co-chair of the TDS Teen Advisory Board. “And they’re buckling up.”
In the years since Martinez’s fatal accident, TDS has made quite an impact in Laredo. In Laredo ISD, the effort is coordinated by a committee of students who attend the Vidal M. Trevino School of Communications and Fine Arts for a half-day. These students then take the program back to their home high school, which is either Cigarroa High School, Martin High School or Nixon High School. That model allows 5,000 high school students to receive TDS’s important messages—and the resulting changes in behavior have been impressive. For example, at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, around 80% of these students were using seatbelts. By the second semester, that percentage climbed to 98%. Significant improvements like these are normal for schools that participate in the Zero Crazy outreach, which also addresses distracted driving. Ninety percent of schools nationwide that participate in this outreach achieve statistically significant improvements in these behaviors. Ultimately, faculty, staff and students at participating schools are pleased by the program’s approach and results. “TDS is a great program and it works,” said Benito Mendiola, the TDS sponsor and registrar at Trevino School of Communications and Fine Arts. “It’s student to student, so the messages don’t come from an adult. It is students saying, ‘Please don’t drink and drive. Please wear a seatbelt. Please be safe. Don’t be texting and driving.’ That’s the big selling point: It’s student to student.”