Safety campaign urges Loudoun teens to buckle up

J.J. Engelbrecht, 18, a senior at Heritage High School in Leesburg, was on his way to church when the accident happened.

He had stayed up late the night before, he said, and as he drove down Evergreen Mill Road in Leesburg the morning of May 20, he nodded off, and his car drifted across the center line.

“I don’t remember falling asleep,” Engelbrecht said, “but when I woke up, I was in a lane of oncoming traffic, and there was a car in front of me.”

The head-on collision totaled both cars, but the two drivers escaped serious injury.

Engelbrecht credits a new safety program — called the Put It Together seat belt challenge, launched this year by the Virginia State Police and the Leesburg Police Department — with his survival.

Two weeks before the accident, Engelbrecht had signed a pledge card vowing to buckle his seat belt every time he got into the car, even if he was only going a short distance. He thinks that promise made all the difference when it mattered most.

When Engelbrecht went to retrieve his belongings from the wrecked car, “the guy there looked at me and said, ‘Where’s the driver?’ ” Engelbrecht said. “He didn’t know it was me, because he thought the driver was dead.”

The Put It Together campaign prompted more than 1,500 students at Heritage, Loudoun and Tuscarora high schools in Leesburg to sign pledge cards this spring, promising to always buckle their seat belts.

Authorities said it was clear that such a program was needed. In April, police conducted a preliminary survey at the three schools to determine how many students were regularly using seat belts. The results were what officials had feared: Only 66 percent of the students surveyed said they always buckle up.

“Especially in the afternoon, we knew the kids were in a hurry to get out of school and get home,” said 1st Sgt. Alvin D. Blankenship, Loudoun County area commander of the Virginia State Police. “They’re just hopping in the car and taking off.”

The Put It Together program was inspired by a similar initiative in Norfolk, Blankenship said. But authorities in Loudoun decided to add incentives to keep kids invested, including scholarship awards and incentives from local businesses that sponsor the program.

The week of May 14, students from the three schools competed to see which school could get the most kids involved in the seat belt safety initiative. To participate in the program, students had to sign the Put It Together pledge card.

“To get their rewards, like free oil changes or gas cards, they had to hold on to their pledge cards,” Blankenship said. “Our thinking is that this would help keep them connected to the idea.”

The competing teens launched creative promotional efforts. They hosted relay races, made T-shirts and distributed wristbands that said, “You Only Live Once — Buckle Up” to help inspire their peers to take the effort seriously.

“That’s what we’re looking for. We’re trying to get these kids to come up with their own ideas,” Blankenship said. “I could preach to them all day, standing up there as a police officer, and you might reach one or two. But when these kids start talking to other kids, that really makes a difference.”

Post-survey results demonstrate the campaign’s success, with 77 percent of surveyed students reporting that they buckled up, a sizable increase from the preliminary survey results, police said.

Heritage High School, which had the most participation, won first place in the competition after 899 students and staff members signed the pledge cards.

At an award ceremony June 8 at the Loudoun County public schools administration building, the program also recognized three teens who made the most significant contributions to the safety campaign: Nailah Philips, 17, of Heritage; Mitchell Stevens, 17, of Loudoun County High; and Kaylie Etheridge, 17, of Tuscarora High. Each was each awarded a $600 scholarship, police said.

The Put It Together challenge will return in the 2012-13 school year, Blankenship said, but will be scheduled in the fall to avoid overlapping with standardized testing in the spring.

The next program will be in November, he said, adding that authorities plan to expand the effort.

The schools and Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III “have offered their support,” he said. “We’re looking to bring the program to Purcellville this year.”

Woodgrove and Loudoun Valley high schools in Purcellville are next on the priority list, because of a simple fact: Statistics show that boys ages 17 and 18 who drive pickup trucks are the least likely to wear a seat belt, Blankenship said.

“The largest percentage of pickup trucks in Loudoun County driven by teens are being operated out of Woodgrove and Loudoun Valley,” he said.

Eventually, he hopes that the program will spread to all Loudoun County high schools and help save more teens such as Engelbrecht.

“We’re trying to change their culture,” Blankenship said. “It should be automatic that they put the seat belt on. That’s what we’re trying to do, and we think this is something that obviously works.”

Engelbrecht, who plans to attend Liberty University in the fall, continues to undergo physical therapy for his left knee, which was injured in the accident. But he considers himself extraordinarily lucky that — stitches and staples aside — he is alive and well.

“All the time you hear the cliche that your seat belt will save your life,” he said. “But until it happens to you, you don’t really believe it much.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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