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Article updated: 4/18/2013 7:24 PM

2 students win new cars as part of safety push

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A total of 29 high school students held coveted keys in their hands on Wednesday, but only two would end up starting the new cars parked in front of the Concorde Banquets in Kildeer.

Emina Mesic, a Palatine High School sophomore and Tanner Hermes, a senior from Grayslake Central High School, emerged as the lucky winners.

Mesic won a 2010 Chevy Aveo, donated by Black Diamond Plumbing and Mechanics in Crystal Lake, while Hermes won a 2009 Chevy Cobalt donated by Kunes Country Ford in Antioch.

The dramatics drew nearly 300 teens and their teachers, who filled the ballroom. It was the culmination of Operation Click, a safe driving program for teens, whose mission is to reduce teen injuries and fatalities from motor vehicle crashes.

Teens came from the Barrington/Hoffman Estates chapter -- Barrington, Conant, Elk Grove, Fremd, Hoffman Estates, Lake Zurich, Palatine and Schaumburg high schools -- as well as those from the Libertyville chapter -- Grayslake Central, Grayslake North, Libertyville, Mundelein, Stevenson, Vernon Hills and Wauconda high schools.

Sean McGrath, a Crystal Lake police officer, started the program 15 years ago with three high schools. Currently, there are 39 participating in Northwest Cook, Lake, Kane, McHenry and Walworth County in Wisconsin. Maine Township schools are expected to join next year with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge signing on as a second hospital partner.

"You've all gone through driver's ed and learned the rules about safe driving," McGrath told the crowd, "but we think our program works because of positive reinforcement."

In order to qualify for the chance to win the car, students had to sign contracts saying they would wear their seat belts, not drink and drive, and not drive distractedly by texting or talking on their phones.

School officials audited their students four times during the school year to make sure they were following through -- by observing them in school parking lots. Those schools with 95 percent seat belt usage were eligible to have a drawing among students who had signed contracts to determine the pool who would participate in Wednesday's event, with one car awarded each set of schools.

Last year, in both sets after students drew keys, the first student who tried a key proved to be the winner. This year, amazingly enough, the last key tried in each case proved to be the winner.

As part of the program, students also are encouraged to educate their classmates, through original videos, pamphlets, T-shirts and by holding prevention events.

Grace Eisenhuth of Lake Zurich High School won student of the year honors for her work in spreading the word, while Badger High School in Lake Geneva won school of the year.

Kelsey Klausner, a senior at Grayslake North, described the 7-minute video that she and her classmates made to show the power of positive decision-making while driving. Students viewed the video for the first time on Wednesday.

"After seeing videos like this, it makes people aware of what can happen," Klausner said. "Hopefully, it will make them think the next time."

Nick Pyan, vice president of Operation Click, said the sponsors have seen great success getting teens to wear seat belts, and the program is changing its focus to distracted driving, particularly texting.

John Juneau, a junior at Fremd High School and a Schaumburg resident, said seeing videos like Wednesday's of real victims of texting and driving accidents hit home.

"Just getting this kind of information makes students more aware," Juneau said. "They're realizing it's dangerous -- and dumb."

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