By Jason A. Smith
Safety behind the wheel of a vehicle is the thrust of a yearly event, set for this weekend in Hampton.
The fifth annual Safe Teen Georgia Driving Academy is scheduled for Saturday, from 8:30 a.m., to 2:30 p.m., at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS).
Len Pagano, president of the non-profit Safe America Foundation, a Marietta-based group, which created the academy, said attendees will be instructed on a comprehensive blend of topics related to safe driving.
"We're going to have information on everything from how to keep your car properly maintained, to what your responsibilities are under Georgia law at the scene of an accident," Pagano said.
He added that more than 4,000 young drivers have gone through the program since the academy's inception seven years ago. "We have been able to take teen drivers, who are very impressionable, and help them to develop lifelong safety habits," he said.
One of the main focuses of the seminar will center on pending legislation in Georgia, regarding the use of cell phones and text messaging by drivers. A bill, which seeks to prohibit drivers from text messaging while driving, passed in the State Senate April 29, after passage in the Georgia House of Representatives two days earlier. The measure is awaiting the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue, Pagano said.
Although Saturday's seminar is geared toward younger motorists, Pagano continued, people of all ages can benefit from learning about the dangers of texting while driving. "Every driver is probably guilty of using a cell phone to text or make a call while driving," he said. "Most people think it's not dangerous, but it's a deadly combination. We need to use this event on Saturday to get that across, and we need to tell parents they can't get away with it, either."
Safe America Foundation Spokesman Matthew Thome, agreed with Pagano's assessment of the potentially lethal nature of "distracted driving."
"Texting and driving is one of the most dangerous activities a person can do behind the wheel," Thome said. "It reduces reaction time at a level equivalent to having a blood-alcohol level of .08. It takes approximately five seconds to read or send a text message. At 55 miles per hour, that's the equivalent of driving the length of a football field, with your eyes off the road."
Students at the academy, Thome said, will be introduced to the foundation's "Exit 2 Text It" campaign, which advocates drivers exiting the road before sending text messages.
Henry County Police Detective Angie Stuart, of McDonough, will accompany her 16-year-old daughter, Kacy, a sophomore at Union Grove High School, to the academy. Stuart wants to build on the instruction she has already given Kacy. "Every piece of driver's education she can get ... is good in my book," the detective said. "These roads are not only more crowded than they were when I started driving, but people are more busy and their time management causes them to be more aggressive in their driving. It's a fast-paced world ... and you've got to think fast."
Michelle Platson, a language arts teacher at Stockbridge Middle School, where her 14-year-old son, Dalton, is in the eighth grade, signed up her son for the driving academy, in anticipation of his entry into high school and his first driving experience.
"I just want him to be prepared to be driving on the road, and to know the dangers," Platson said. "It's really easy to be drawn in by your peers, into driving too fast, or doing crazy stunts with your vehicle. There's a lot of power in being able to drive, but with that power comes responsibility."
The cost to enroll in the academy is $40, and prospective participants can register at www.safeamerica.org, or at AMS the day of the event. For more details, call (770) 973-7233.