As a new group of teenage drivers hits the road this fall, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 is incorporating a defensive driving unit into its driver's ed classes.
District 214 began teaching "Alive at 25" last fall; it was the first school district in the U.S. to do so.
"Alive at 25" is a four-hour defensive driving course people may be required to take after being involved in an accident or receiving a ticket. Jeff Jerdee, District 214's director of careers and technology education and driver education, worked with the National Safety Council to rewrite the district's curriculum and work it into what students are already learning.
"'Alive at 25' talks about the emotion and responsibility of driving," Jerdee said.
Regular driver's ed covers the nuts and bolts of driving without getting into the mindset students need behind the wheel, he said.
"When you get into a car and you're upset, you're going to drive that way," Jerdee said.
He said the course helps students develop a different attitude toward driving -- that it's not an entitlement but a responsibility.
"'Alive at 25' has been around for decades and is not a replacement for driver's education but an addition to it," said James Solomon, director of program development and training for the National Safety Council's defensive driving courses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2009, eight people between 16 and 19 died daily from motor vehicle crash injuries. Per mile driven, drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash, according to the CDC's statistics.
"Kids think they are indestructible when they're that age; you think you're going to live forever no matter what," Jerdee said. "'Alive at 25' explains to them the realities of what could happen if a bad decision is made."
Solomon said major aspects of the program include teaching students how to handle peer pressure and take control of a situation while behind the wheel.
Kathy Klaczek, who teaches driver's ed at Wheeling and Buffalo Grove high schools, said the program covers risky behaviors, DUIs, feelings of invincibility and understanding how to stay in control of dangerous situations.
Students are also shown a graphic video in which two teenagers driving recklessly are killed in an accident. Interviews from the teens' family members are shown afterward.
"It makes it hit home to them," Klaczek said, "how their lives could change forever or even be over."
The information learned through "Alive at 25" adds to the district's existing curriculum and highlights certain aspects of the class throughout the semester, said Tim Lazzarotto, who teaches driver's ed at Prospect and John Hersey high schools.
"It really gets them thinking about what they can do to be better, safer drivers," he said.
"I'd love to see other schools do the same thing," Solomon said. "They (District 214) are getting ahead of the problem and dealing with it."
At the end of the program, students pledge what changes they're going to make to be a better driver.
Klaczek said the program has brought a sense of seriousness to a classroom usually filled with pure excitement to just get out onto the road.
"It blows them away a little," she said. "They get choked up and taken aback to realize they are not invincible. Hopefully it makes them think and be safe."