by Lupe Ramos
The Center for International Intelligent Transportation Research (CIITR) does more than simply conduct research in the El Paso region. We also look for ways, through our research and outreach, to improve the lives of everyone transportation touches, especially in our own home town.
One of the ways CIITR is making a difference locally is by supporting efforts by the Teens in the Driver Seat® (TDS) and U in the Driver Seat® (UDS) programs. Each program targets a specific age group of young drivers, aiming to raise awareness of what contributes most to fatal and debilitating car crashes involving these young members of our community. With a little thoughtful planning and awareness, many of those crashes can be avoided.
Begun in 2002 by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, TDS’s mission is to educate high school-aged teen drivers to help reduce the number of U.S. teens dying in car crashes each year (some 3,000 annually). Since starting in Texas, TDS has expanded to 35 states across the nation. The program is run by and for high-school students and even has a pre-driving component aimed at middle-school students. The thinking is this: peer pressure can be a positive thing when applied in the right direction—namely by inspiring fellow teen drivers to behave responsibly when driving and motivating young passengers to “watch each other’s backs” while they are on the road together.
Inspired by the award-winning, far-reaching success of TDS, UDS began reaching out to college-aged drivers in 2012. UDS focuses on the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and the program is sorely needed. DUI-involved crashes for drivers aged 18-24 has gone up some 18 percent across the Lone Star State in the past five years. UDS establishes programs at local college campuses to meet the needs of students in a given community. Like TDS, UDS is run by the very age group it hopes to reach—college-aged drivers—and strives to instill good driving behavior by highlighting the deadly consequences of irresponsibility behind the wheel.
With support from the Texas Department of Transportation, CIITR, State Farm Insurance, and the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization, both groups have had a significant local impact via El Paso schools. TDS has maintained a local presence since 2006; across the region, 37 high schools and 22 middle schools now have active TDS programs. Just in the past year, six high schools and six middle schools have joined their ranks. And all five El Paso Community College (EPCC) campuses have an active UDS team.
One way we encourage students to take driving safety seriously is by sponsoring friendly competitions that reward schools showing the most safety-conscious spirit and most frequent grassroots outreach on their campuses. For example, the statewide TDS Cup, sponsored by State Farm, is given each year to the top TDS program schools that complete various outreach activities and achieving program goals. At the end of each year, the school with the most points in their respective student-population category is declared the winner and receives the TDS Cup. Schools that reach a minimum required number of activity points are also recognized as an Outstanding TDS School.
In 2015, two El Paso schools received awards in the TDS Cup competition. Jefferson High School tied for first place in the 5A/6A division competition, and Montwood Middle School tied for second place in the middle school division. We have similar stories from all over the region for schools that have won various awards or chosen to serve on TDS’s Teen Advisory Board.
UDS is also positively influencing young drivers in our community by sponsoring alcohol awareness events. In April, all EPCC campuses held an alcohol awareness event where students learned the dangers and consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol. UDS has also teamed up with the university police at The University of Texas at El Paso to distribute educational materials to students.
CIITR’s efforts to reach out to our community through these programs are just one example of how we—who live here as part of El Paso’s regional family—can help make a difference. And maybe, just maybe we can even help save the life of a young driver right here in our own community; maybe even the life of your son or daughter.
Lupe Ramos is an assistant research specialist with TTI’s Youth Transportation Safety Program.