I was asked to write an article not just about SAFE but how and why it started. As you will be able to tell I’m not an articulate or accomplished writer, but I am passionate about reducing serious, disabling and fatal incidents that results after car crashes that have plagued teen drivers for years.
It all started in the small but beautiful town of Ulysses Kansas. Five young ladies left school one afternoon during open lunch. No one will ever know why they left school or why they did not see the oncoming semi approaching the intersection. One thing I do know is that all five were unrestrained when the crash occurred and four of the five were killed that day. The remaining young lady was seriously injured.
The same week of the crash, it just so happened that I had three spring Law Enforcement Thank You lunches scheduled in southwest Kansas. One of the lunches was planned for Ulysses. The entire town was shut down and school was out so the community could attend the funeral of the four young people killed in the recent crash. Needless to say, I canceled lunch. Being in Ulysses with nothing to do, I decided to attend the funeral for the four young ladies. While attending I observed and heard several things that I’ll never forget.
As folks arrived at the funeral, I noticed adults, teens and even law enforcement arriving mostly unbuckled. This told me that there was a lack of education regarding seatbelt use as well as a possible lack of enforcement. I also observed the Kansas Patriot Honor Guard with their flags waving high and blocking the scene on a side street that the Kansas Highway Patrol had blocked off. On the blocked off side street was the Westboro Baptist Church with their vial and inappropriate signs also waving high.
The thing I heard that bothered me the most was that the blame of the tragedy went on the open lunch hours. In my opinion, open lunch had nothing to do with this catastrophe. The fact that these young people were unrestrained was one of the major culprits. I’ve been told before that I’ll never know for an absolute fact that lack of seatbelt use was the reason for the serious injuries or deaths. That may be true, but one thing I am sure of is this; none of those young women were restrained and four of them are gone forever. The last will live a life without her friends and have visible injuries to remind her every day of the horrible incident.
It was a long drive back to Wichita that next day and I couldn't stop thinking about what could be done to stop or prevent another tragedy like the one that occurred in Ulysses. I remembered a program that was started by an El Dorado school resource officer (Kurt Spivey) in Butler County. The program was called Buckle Up Butler and a donated car was given away. It showed great promise and success. My thought was to develop something similar but I wanted something that would involve students signing pledge cards each month, more than one winner, and a chance for students to win a substantial prize at the end of the school year. I also wanted something that would address other bad driving decisions like distracted driving and underage drinking along with a strong seatbelt message. No matter what, I knew there had to be a strong and sustained enforcement of our seatbelt laws. This is WHY SAFE started!
Now let’s look at HOW it all started: After arriving back in Wichita, I looked to Dan Schulte with DCCCA to give me the worst seatbelt usage rate in his 20 county State Occupant Protection Observational Seatbelt Study. Three counties jumped out as having low seatbelt usage among adult, teen and children. Montgomery, Neosho and Crawford Counties were all below 50% in the 2008 observational study.
My next goal was to find a collective group of law enforcement agencies that not only worked well together but participated in traffic safety efforts. Crawford County jumped to the forefront. Again, in my opinion, they had a good Department and a Sheriff that strongly cared about the citizens he served. My initial approach with Crawford County Sheriff Sandy Horton was a success. I floated the idea of SAFE by him and together we decided to reach out to the Kansas Highway Patrol and include them in the formation of the program.
A meeting involving myself, Sheriff Horton, Captain Wilson and Trooper John Keene both with the Kansas Highway Patrol, was held and we discussed how to best set-up and implement a teen traffic safety program. Sheriff Horton soon brought in school principals and student leaders from all six high schools in Crawford County. This was the key moment in which the concept of SAFE was presented to the group. Student leaders and administration embraced the concept. Along with helping develop the final program that we all know today, students voted and named it SAFE (Seatbelts are for Everyone).
Law enforcement and schools were on board so funding became the next challenge. Fortunately for us, finding the funding sources maybe the easiest of the challenge to overcome. Two main financial contributors were the key to the foundation of the program. The first was the local Labette Bank. They agreed to provide the prize twenty-five-dollar Visa cards free of service charges. They also donated ten $25 Visa cards to each of the six high school prize drawings. Mr. Jim Hanni with AAA of Kansas contributed $2000 that was used for monthly and grand prizes. These two large contributions along with small local donors and the enthusiasm of the students almost guaranteed success.
I would like to note that over the life of the SAFE program, specifically ten years, Mr. Hanni and the AAA Board of Traffic Safety Trustees have awarded the Kansas SAFE program in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. In addition, Mr. Hanni and the AAA Board led the campaign that successfully obtained legislation to provide a sustainable funding source for SAFE. This source is sure to last far into the future.
How do you measure the success of a program? Again, in my opinion, you only have to look at the data? What started in 6 high schools in one county during the 2008/2009 school year is now in 72 counties and over 160 high schools in 2018. This goes to the success of Ms. Laura Moore hard work and also her ability to relate to the younger generation. When SAFE stared were losing 45 to 50 teens a year with about 60% unrestrained. Today we lose about 25 to 30 with about 50% of those unrestrained. Still too many as our goal is Drive to Zero when it comes to deaths on our streets and highways. Again what started in that one county is now in several Kansas schools also in Missouri, Iowa and Oklahoma.
I would like to take credit for SAFE and its success but that would be naive. It took many folks working together to get us where we are today. I would like to Identify some of these people and organizations. I know I will miss someone or organization and I apologize for that.
First is my office; the Staff of the Kansas Department of Transportation Bureau of Traffic Safety Administration and their backing and financial support.
The staff of the Kansas Traffic Safety Resource Office for their educational and organizational skills and outreach to schools and their ability to produce some of the best traffic safety teen conferences in the United States. They are truly the soldiers on the ground.
The Kansas Sheriffs Association for both their financial support and promoting SAFE in their counties.
Executive Director of the Kansas Sheriffs Association Sandy Horton for help promote SAFE and most importantly, listening when he was approached with the concept of SAFE while serving as the Sheriff of Crawford County. As one individual stated “if we could only clone him”.
Mr. Jim Hanni AAA of Kansas and his AAA Traffic Safety Board of Trustees; Jim for his guidance and expertise and the Board for believing in the program and the financial support they offered.
Labette Bank and all of the small businesses that they represent for their caring and generosity to help and support SAFE in their local community.
Mr. Kevin Gamble and the men and women of State Farm Insurance for their monetary assistance with financial support and support of the Teen Traffic Safety Conferences along with their support with their financial assistance in help establishing SAFE in Missouri and Oklahoma (they realize that teens are perishing at an alarming rate in those states also).
The Kansas Traffic Safety Seatbelt Coalition for their guidance and untiring pursuit of legislation that will ensure funding SAFE in every high school in the state for the far-reaching future.
Our legislature and their chairpersons that promoted and passed the afore mentioned legislation along with our graduated driver’s license statues (truly lifesaving legislation).
Ms. Laura Moore for her untiring pursuit of new schools and being able to relate to our teens with her guidance, knowledge and energy.
Ms. Norraine Wingfield for allowing Laura to pursue her goals.
The hundreds of Law enforcement agencies that work closely with KDOT Department of Traffic Safety with both education and high visibility enforcement efforts.
The Chiefs of Police and their association that implement SAFE in their towns and cities.
I know I missed an organization or individual that was a great supporter of SAFE. I’m sorry, but encourage you to still be proud of your accomplishments and the part you played in saving a teen life from serious injury or death.
I have saved what I feel is the most important group to recognition for last. Without question, the superintendents, principals, school resource officers, school sponsors and the students themselves that manage the SAFE programs in their schools, they are the blood and soul of SAFE. You all are truly the best of the best. Thank you for your participation and dedication to a lifesaving program. Its success is truly yours.
Kansas Department of Transportation
Law Enforcement Liaison