BOONE — In an effort to reduce the amount of fatalities of young people due to vehicle crashes, a safe driving course has made its way to Watauga County.

StreetSafe is a nonprofit program that offers a driving course targeting ages 16 to 25 taught by local first responders. The course takes place in a classroom as well as outside with hands-on driver training. According to the organization, students in the course experience losing control of a car, how to maintain a realistic stopping distance, the dangers of drinking and driving, the importance of wearing a seatbelt and understanding the hazards of distracted driving.

Todd Radabaugh, the director for Street Safe — which is based out of Wilmington — said the organization’s mission is to have as many young people as possible take the course and negate driving issues early.

“If we can change the behavior and just prevent one crash it is totally worth it to us,” Radabaugh said.

Crashes account for about 40 percent of deaths for young people among the ages of 16 to 24, according to StreetSafe. This makes car crashes the leading cause of death for American teens, even more so than drugs, guns or disease. The organization also states that people ages 16 to 20 have the highest fatality rate die to motor vehicle crashes compared to any other age group.

“Most young people don’t think anything bad is going to happen to them until it does,” Radabaugh said. “A lot of times, by the time they figure it out it’s too late.”

Boone Police Department Det. Kat Eller is serving as the lead coordinator for the county with the program — although Boone Police itself is not sponsoring the program. Radabaugh said StreetSafe likes to use law enforcement personnel or other emergency responders as this experience is likely the first time young drivers interact with officers outside of a law enforcement setting.

In order to facilitate the course, Eller said she went through a training that included taking the course. It was during this time that Eller said she herself had an “eye-opening” experience and realized she had things she could work on to become a safer driver.

The class is four and a half hours with about two hours and 15 minutes spent in a classroom and the other half spent on a driving course in a vehicle completing several tasks. Radabaugh said the difference between StreetSafe and other defensive driving programs offered in the state is the hands-on portion of the course. He said StreetSafe is the only course to offer the driving experience of the class while others only offer the classroom section.

The classroom portion features content on safe driving practices. This includes video testimonies of those impacted by unsafe habits such as texting and driving or drinking and driving, Eller said.

“Every time I watched those videos it stirs my heart,” Eller said. “It breaks my heart for those families that have gone through those tragedies. It wakes you up.”

Course instructors don’t require participants to have a drivers license, but they are required to have driving experience with a good familiarity of basic vehicle operation or have completed drivers education. This is because some of the stations require basic knowledge on how to operate a vehicle.

Radabaugh said basic driver’s education is a class young drivers have to take by law. StreetSafe cannot be taken in place of a driver’s ed course; it’s only used to enhance a driver’s knowledge. According to the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, driver’s ed courses are offered through high schools and offer 30 hours of classroom time and driving experience. The DMV does not list how many hours of driving experience a driver’s ed class typically offers; however, Radabaugh states it is six hours.

The driving portion of the StreetSafe course includes six stations: a tailgating station to show the dangers of following a vehicle too closely, an evasive lane change station to demonstrate unpredictable conditions, a speed control/skid pan station to indicate how road conditions can impact braking, fatal vision goggles course to display the hazards of drinking and driving, a seat belt convincer station to simulate the importance of a seat belt in a crash and a “no zone” station to exhibit dangers when passing tractor trailers.

While Watauga County doesn’t have the seat belt convincer yet, Eller said she hopes to have one by the next session. The convincer simulates the importance of a seatbelt even when a vehicle is only traveling eight to 10 miles an hour.

The tailgating station will require the participant to accelerate the vehicle up to 25 miles per hour and attempt to stop the vehicle prior to striking a demonstration dummy. The speed control/skid pan station asks drivers to accelerate to a speed of 20 to 25 miles per hour while attempting to navigate a sharp turn that has been sprayed down with water to simulate road conditions.

Eller said that the course all takes place in a parking lot and is supervised under safe conditions. Instructors also have a brake in the vehicle to ensure safety. Vehicles are provided by StreetSafe and are inspected by mechanics after each session.

“At the end of a course day, when you have young people high-fiving you, giving you a hug, thanking you and telling you ‘I’ll never text again while I’m driving,’ that does something,” Eller said. “It’s like I made an impact. It really means a lot to me.”

The program operates with two options — the lifesaving driving experience or traffic court driving program. While both entail the same program and content, the first is for those who are there voluntarily and the second is for those who have been recommended to the program as a result of a driving ticket or citation. The course is $30 for the lifesaving driving experience and $120 for those attending for traffic court purposes.

Rather than a person being issued a traffic ticket and simply paying it and the insurance increase, Radabaugh said drivers now get a chance to come to the class and gain driving knowledge. Depending on the judicial district, he added that taking the StreetSafe course could potentially reduce or dismiss a traffic ticket.

While StreetSafe targets a younger demographic, it’s also open to older age groups. Radabaugh said a person in their 80s has participated before.

StreetSafe started in 2007 as a community course by a former police officer, Radabaugh said. The following year the district attorney in New Hanover County had heard about the program and asked for the chance to refer those with traffic violations to the program. The program is now in 14 judicial districts in the state, Radabaugh stated.

Radabaugh went on to say that the program came to Watauga after the district attorney’s office for the 24th judicial district said it would like to bring the program to the area. Eller said Watauga has had three StreetSafe sessions so far — one each in July, September and October. The goal is to have one session per month rain or shine, even during the winter months. The next session is scheduled for Dec. 15.

People can sign up for the course by visiting streetsafeus.com. From here, participants can find the “lifesaving driving experience” or “traffic court driving programs” under the services tab, scroll to find the Watauga County option and click the “sign up now” button.

Sessions typically start at 9 a.m. at Watauga High School with participants requested to be at the location 15 minutes early. Eller said those who show up late will need to reschedule and attend a different session.

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