A not-so-rocky route for driving-safety program

Courtesy on the Road initiative grows in popularity among county teens, gets support from schools, police

August 27, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special To The Sun

Courtesy on the Road, which started in spring 2005 as an idea between two friends walking in The Mall in Columbia, now has support from schools and law enforcement officials and even has its own music video.

The program, created by Lisa Morrow and Steffi Rubin, started with the simple concept of rewarding kids for good driving habits.

"It was kind of out of fear and concern," said Morrow, whose daughter, Stephanie, was about to start driving.

But Courtesy on the Road also was based on the insight that new drivers receive so many frightening and negative messages that a positive message, complete with rewards, would be welcome. Being "against" drunk and irresponsible driving is important, Morrow said, but so is being "for" courteous driving.

"We want to reward the good behavior," Rubin said.

Rubin, a graphic designer, created a magnet of a cute little black-and-white car named Sheldon. Each week, a student sporting the magnet on his or her car and driving safely was rewarded, typically with coupons for restaurants, concerts or gas. Students also were recognized with e-mailed praise, and at the end of the school year, Glenelg High School, which had the most participants, was treated to a party.

The program was launched in August 2005, which coincided with the county's new policy of requiring high school students to take a driver safety class before getting a school parking permit. Last summer, every high school held driver safety classes that were mandatory for students who wanted a parking permit. Students saw videos of horrific car accidents and learned the basic rules of the road.

And at each class, Morrow or Rubin or another Courtesy on the Road volunteer would stand in front of the auditorium and tell the kids about the program. Courtesy on the Road representatives also went to the high schools on what they called "tater tot tours," explaining how the program worked.

Just over a year later, Morrow and Rubin have created a nonprofit organization and found many ways to fine-tune the program. They have won the support of the Police Department, and officers now promote the program as part of the overall safety program, meaning Courtesy on the Road representatives don't have to sell the program themselves.

"We didn't want to be two ladies trying to express something to kids who are already glazed over," Rubin said.

In addition, they have worked to make the program more appealing to teens by creating a music video with a band called Exit 76, made up of students from Glenelg High School.

"It kind of speaks their language," Morrow said. "I think it's more cool."

Ian Collins, 16, guitarist for the alternative rock band, said his group tweaked the song, called "It's the Journey," that had been created by Rubin. "We kind of arranged it in our own way, with her lyrics," he said. It was recorded in the sound studio in his house. His father, Michael Collins, is a recording engineer.

Ian Collins, the youngest member of the band, thinks the idea behind Courtesy on the Road makes sense. "I think it's good, but I think it needs a little more work in grabbing the students," he said. "I'm guessing that's why she asked us to do this video."

The other members of the band - vocalist Evan Kay, guitarist Ethan Reinking, bass player Nick Rosas and drummer Rob Foy - all graduated from Glenelg in the spring.

Sheldon's geekiness is a constant theme on the program's Web site, which announces right on the home page that it features the "geeky but lovable little mascot and spokescar ... Sheldon!" Elsewhere, the site says, "yeah, we know he's geeky, but he'll grow on you."

The program has picked up endorsements from Maryland's first lady, Kendel Ehrlich, acting county police Chief William McMahon, and many principals, vice principals and other school officials.

About 1,200 kids signed up in the first year of the program, and the goal is to at least double that number this year, Rubin said.

The next goal, said Rubin and Morrow, is to get the program to the point where it runs itself, with kids being automatically signed up when they get a parking permit. Morrow and Rubin would also like to expand their concept throughout the country.

For more information, go to www.courtesyontheroad.com.

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