When organizers of Street Smarts, a traffic safety program in the San Ramon Valley, decided they needed to do everything possible to get the attention of teen drivers, they turned to Cpt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger for a helping hand.
Sullenberger, the longtime Danville resident who, 20 months ago, as a veteran US Airways airline pilot, became an American hero after he and his flight crew successfully brought their powerless jetliner – carrying 155 passengers – to safety on New York's Hudson River, visited the students of San Ramon's Dougherty Valley High School Monday.
He was recruited by Street Smarts to speak to students about this year's campaign to promote safe driving habits, which, under a new program, will focus specifically on teen drivers who attend the school.
By the positive reaction from the more than 300 students listening to Sullenberger in the school's main quad, he got the message across loud and clear.
"You need to approach driving with the seriousness it deserves," Sullenberger told the noontime crowd of juniors and seniors.
In its seventh year, Street Smarts promotes traffic safety in the community through educational programs, bike rodeos, school assemblies, public events and informational publications.
Sullenberger was joined by Terry Koehne of the Street Smarts Program advisory committee; San Ramon Mayor H. Abram Wilson; Danville Mayor Mike Doyle; San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board President Rachel Hurd; and Jen Quallick, a representative of Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho.
The organization also announced Monday the launch of its "It Happens" campaign, a driving safety program geared especially to high school students. The campaign not only focuses on being safe while driving a vehicle, it gives teenagers an opportunity to share their real-life experiences and advice with fellow teens in an environment they are comfortable with – online.
The launch of this year's "It Happens" campaign will focus specifically on the students of Dougherty Valley High School.
Sullenberger told the students that 41,000 people across the country die every year from vehicle-related accidents.
"That's about 112 people a day," Sullenberger told the students. "How many deaths can you tolerate? Being behind the wheel is like being in a 5,000-pound missile traveling down a highway."
Speaking on the subject of distracted drivers, Sullenberger said being distracted while driving is "tantamount to driving the length of a football field blindfolded."
"A traffic accident, especially when someone gets hurt or dies, can be life-changing," Sullenberger said.
When he was finished, students gave Sullenberger a standing ovation.
"With the information that all of us shared with them today, I think we got their attention," Sullenberger said later. "I think we made them think about the consequences of what could happen if they were involved in an accident."
A small number of students listening to the presentation raised their hands when asked if they text or e-mail while driving. The latest statistics reveal that teenagers are four times more likely to crash a vehicle they are driving due to distractions such as texting, emailing or talking on their cell phones.
As part of the "It Happens" campaign, students at DVHS will be encouraged to submit their real-life experiences as a driver or passenger on the program's website, www.ithappens2u.com. Six of the submitted stories will be chosen to become a part of a short "webisode" documentary, to which students will be able to vote for their favorite video.
The Street Smarts campaign will also include younger students in educating them about traffic safety, including a video contest for middle school students that focuses on the subject of dangerous distractions for bicyclists. Elementary school students will be able to participate in the program via a storybook poster contest.