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Rural Utah teens bucking culture and buckling up

Published December 4, 2013 7:42 am

Road safety • After years of fatalities, the driving culture in Utah's rural areas is shifting for the better.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Delta • Michael Lefevre was an exceptionally tall sophomore at Delta High — 6-foot-6 — with aspirations of playing college and professional basketball.

But after midnight on April 24, 2010, he still had not come home from his friend's house. His parents got nervous and tried calling him, but his phone went straight to voice mail. Lefevre's father went looking for him. He was a mile outside of town when he saw the flashing police lights and his son's car in a field.

The car was on top of him.

"I ran toward the crash site, but a policeman grabbed me and said, 'Don't go over there, he's already gone, you don't want to see him this way,'" his father wrote in a memorial.

Lefevre's parents say he always wore his seat belt, but he was not the night he died.

Since 2005, the Utah Highway Safety Office has compared how many rural versus urban Utahns were wearing a seat belt at the time of a crash. From 2006 to 2008, rural Utahns were twice to three times more likely to not have their seat belt on, according to the reports.

But that's changing.

Those highway safety office reports show the gap is shrinking. Since 2009, people in rural Utah have been only 1.6 to 1.8 times more likely to be unrestrained in a crash than their urban counterparts.

Looking a little further back in the formal crash reports, and specifically at teens, the numbers are improving — a lot. In rural Utah, the number of unrestrained teens injured in a crash fell 74 percent from 2003 to 2012; the same statistic fell 72 percent for fatal crashes.

On a statewide level, more Utah drivers than ever are buckling up, according to a new Utah Highway Patrol survey released Monday. Kristy Rigby, occupant protection program manager, said that the study revealed that about 82.4 percent of drivers this year indicated they are using their seat belts regularly, up from 81.9 percent in 2012.

The 2013 study was conducted in June in 17 counties.

Sage advice • The efforts to get teens to buckle up seem to be working.

In rural counties, the message is hand-delivered.

Terry Smith has watched as rural teens have been hurt and killed because they were not wearing seat belts during the earliest and, due to the lack of experience, most precarious part of their driving careers. The retired Utah Highway Patrol trooper travels from rural high school to rural high school, from Box Elder County to San Juan, preaching safety.

Images of crash sites — horrific, traumatic and all caught on California Highway Patrol cameras — flashed in front of a Delta High auditorium full of sophomores. The grade level is Smith's favorite, since sophomores are either on the cusp on getting their licenses or just obtained them. Smith told them beforehand to look away if the images were too much for them, "but to listen, please listen."

A CHP trooper in the educational video rhetorically asked that if you knew that not wearing your seat belt meant that you would never see your family again, would you make that choice?

"Do you think I showed you that to scare you?" the retired trooper asked after the credits rolled. He pointed out how 10 Utah teens died in crashes last year. "That may not sound like much, but if that's you, it's pretty devastating."

Lefevre's younger brother Tanner, now a sophomore himself, was sitting in the front row, taking it all in. He's tall, like his brother, and leaned forward in his seat during the presentation.

Smith warned the class that the adults who drive them around have been teaching them bad habits their whole lives — "little things that they think are OK, and it's not. … I wrote your parents tickets all the time. We want you to be better than that."

He has an easy time getting the students to enjoy the presentation with jokes while still learning from it, rolling facts, figures and anecdotes off with the ease that comes from having repeated them for years. Smith ran down the risks of distracted driving, following too close, speeding and driving under the influence. And then Smith got to seat belts. "This is a very important one," he said. "There are a few students from this high school who are in the cemetery now and wouldn't be if they wore their seat belts."

He asked everyone to get out a sheet of paper and times their weight by 20. He ribbed that the girls would be brave to share their answers — but, all jokes aside, explained how that number is the force that their bodies generate during a crash at only 20 mph.

"You can actually see your face in the glass" after you hit the windshield, he said. "The next time you're not wearing your seat belt around town, I want you to remember that number that's in front of you."

Toward the end of his second presentation that day, Smith hit on a culture that puts his audience in danger: People from rural Utah "armor up" when they go to urban areas like Salt Lake City, but around town, they figure they can ride seat-belt-free; that they are just going across town, what could happen?

Smith's message rang true for the soon-to-be drivers. "We live in a small town … people figure they are not going very far," said Kasen Callister, a sophomore.

Ripple effect • It hit especially home for Tanner Lefevre. "[Smith] hit the message about seat belts just right," he said after the presentation.

The sophomore is working toward his license and intends always to buckle up.

His older sister Shaylee Lefevre, a senior at the high school, organized a 5K on Nov. 16, A Run to Remember, in memory of their brother. The race around the back roads of Delta was meant to promote seat-belt use in the rural county, and featured a speech from a young woman who graduated from Nephi High last year and was paralyzed after a crash.

Shaylee Lefevre was impressed to see about 200 people turn out, 175 of whom ran, and plans to donate the proceeds to the Delta High basketball team. She, too, always wears her seat belt.

It is that shift in culture and that level of ownership of the message, teens talking to teens about safety, that state advocates have been hoping to see for years.

Be the change • Rigby, who designs occupant protection campaigns for the state, has been surveying motorists' seat-belt usage for years. She can see where rural drivers' perception comes from that they are not at the same risk of getting into a crash.

"You drive on these rural roads where there's less traffic, [lower] speed," Rigby said, "and you don't see crashes on a daily basis like you do in urban communities."

Several years ago, the Utah health, traffic, public safety and education departments worked on creating a safe-driving campaign aimed at teens, including a focus on seat belts. During focus groups, rural teens said that the perception is that people are not "tough" when they are buckled up, said Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, who worked on the campaign. "We were trying to pitch it in a way that said just the opposite. Well, you're not tough if you don't."

The Buckle Tough strategy was born. The highway safety office gave out belt buckles with that slogan and used the saying in campaign materials. It was just part of statewide campaign, called Don't Drive Stupid, launched in 2007. The idea was to supply students with the resources, and they would in turn own the campaigns at their schools.

It caught on, including when the office took it to rural Utah. For instance, students would let their peers get into football games for free if they wore their seat belts.

"The kids came up with [Don't Drive Stupid]. It was their messaging, their marketing, their branding," Cosgrove said. "They'll have a grim reaper, a person dressed up like Death with the cloak and the sickle, and come into a classroom and tap somebody on the shoulder. It gives kids a perspective, we just lost him to a traffic fatality because he didn't have a seat belt on."

When Cosgrove stopped at a hamburger joint in Fillmore last year, he noticed a teenage employee was still wearing a Don't Drive Stupid shirt.

Cosgrove credits the combined efforts for the improving numbers, including the graduated driver-license legislation that he pushed in 2007. The license forces teens to have additional driving restrictions and time behind the wheel before reaching a full license with no stipulations.

Building on the success of Don't Drive Stupid, which focused on ownership, the state highway safety office is working on a new seat-belt safety campaign for the rural counties that they would likewise develop and deliver. According to the recent state surveys — which do not break down by age — about 70 percent of rural Utahns buckle up. And while they care about buckling up, they "don't believe other people in their community feel the same way. It's not a discussion happening around the dinner table," Rigby said. "They feel like nobody really cares."

Rural towns have the tight-knit community that urban Utahns do not, where almost everyone knows everyone, so the idea is to get families talking about seat belts and creating that "peer-to-peer" expectation that everyone should buckle up. Rigby expects to launch the campaign in early 2014 in three pilot counties — Box Elder, San Juan and Sanpete — and eventually expand it to the other rural counties after seeing how the strategies pan out there.

And then there is Smith, talking to the young drivers day after day.

In the highway safety office's 2012 annual report, Smith was given a nickname: Road Warrior. Last year, he logged about 12,000 miles driving to schools to share his message. Sometimes the sophomore class is so small, you can count them on two hands; but week by week, he reaches them.

"The amount of experience this man has is incredible," said Russ Henrie, the health teacher who invites Smith back to his class every year.

Until recently, Delta High was losing one to two students a year to a crash; 2012 and 2013, thus far, have passed without a death.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mikeypanda