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Lila Littlejohn: Saving lives with Safe Rides

Posted: May 2, 2009 4:33 p.m.
Updated: May 3, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Santa Clarita Valley Safe Rides volunteers pose for the cameras at Sunday's recognition dinner. More than 100 volunteers participate in the program.

 
How does one count the number of young lives not lost in tragic car accidents last year?

How many high school youngsters didn't get into a car with a drunken driver - because they had a choice?

How many teenagers who had a few too many drinks didn't get behind the wheel - because they had a choice?

Those at Santa Clarita Valley Safe Rides have a hint of the answer: 1,453 local teens delivered home safely last year, thanks to the efforts of 112 volunteers who didn't go to Friday and Saturday night parties - opting instead to try to save peers' lives.

And all those volunteers are high school students themselves.

"You guys are giving up all this time," Santa Clarita Mayor Frank Ferry told teens at last week's Safe Rides recognition dinner, "but ultimately you never know the product of success."

"You never ultimately know you saved someone's life."

Numbers suggest their effectiveness, however.

SCV Safe Rides was launched in 1986, a reaction to a series of six teen auto-related fatalities in previous years.

Within little more than 12 months' time, three students from Canyon High School were killed in car crashes. Fatalities involving youngsters from other high schools followed.

Penny Upton, co-founder of SCV Safe Rides, remembers that time well.

Seeking a solution
"It started with a girl who rolled her car on Sand Canyon," said Upton, who was nearby at the time and remembers the sinking feeling as emergency vehicle after emergency vehicle rolled by, sirens blaring.

Town hall meetings were held as parents frantically sought solutions to the string of crashes.

"Teachers and people at Canyon High School were devastated," Upton said. She and others attended meeting after meeting where lots of good intentions were shown, but no one seemed to know what to do.

Upton hooked up with Betty Burke-Oldfield, and with the aid of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, they held their first Safe Rides meeting, modeling the program on a San Fernando Valley Safe Rides.

About a dozen students showed up, all or most from Canyon High, she said.

MADD's involvement fell off, but Upton and Burke-Oldfield persisted in building the program, signing up students from other high schools as well.

Teen commitment to safety
The program works like this: Students converge on a dispatch center where calls are accepted and cars sent out from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Friday and Saturday night, plus New Year's Eve.

Each car has a team of one driver and one navigator, each made up of a boy and girl.

Callers are picked up and delivered home, no lectures delivered, no questions asked.

The peer nature of the program is what makes it all work.

"Early on, we were wise enough to realize this has to be the kids' program - it can't be something where we (adults) say, ‘You do that,' because they'll say ‘no,'" Upton recalled.

As one volunteer said at Sunday night's ceremonies, "Would (inebriated teens) get in a car with drivers who look like their mom and dad?"

Volunteers submit to rigorous training, which is held twice a year; meetings are scheduled monthly.

Cell phones have accelerated participation. Now, on a Friday or Saturday night, phones ring every few minutes at the dispatch center.

95 percent reduction in fatalities
Since the program, began, teen fatalities related to drinking and driving have dropped by 95 percent.

To be sure, Safe Rides is one of a number of efforts that followed those deaths in the ‘80s. White Ribbon Week, Every 15 Minutes and the city's Evening of Remembrance all aimed at educating young drivers about their responsibilities.

Organizers of Every 15 Minutes urge students to program the Safe Rides number into their cell phones, Upton said.

But while young drivers and dispatchers run the program, an army of moms and dads support it, along with the Contemporary Car Club, which coordinates shows at Route 66 every second Saturday of the month, May through October, to raise funds.

The May 9 show begins the club's ninth year of supporting Safe Rides.

Student volunteers help organize the car shows and run fundraising booths at the events, along with the Friday and Saturday night commitments.

The hours they put in can be astonishing.

Alexys Kamstra received special recognition Sunday night for volunteering 173 hours in 2008.
Other special award winners, and the hours they volunteered last year, included:
Jake Brown, 158
Ariel Navia, 140
Kimberly Birch, 110
Caroline Williamson, 106
Chika Kondo, 125
Sabrina Amaro, 125
Sydney Lott, 89
Garrett Harney, 86
Kyle Feuer, 79
Austin Jones, 78
Cody Harrison, 66
Michael Weiss, 55
Elise Lorenzana, 55
Matt McGrath, 54
Teen officers of Safe Rides are:
Chika Kondo and Austin Jones, co-presidents
Kim Birch, vice president
Katie Farber, secretary
Garrett Harney, treasurer
The Signal salutes all for their dedication.
Lila Littlejohn is the managing editor at The Signal. Her column represents her views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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