Safety program is now a driving force for teens

May 25, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

As Janell Winkowski sees it, Courtesy on the Road gives her free stuff for doing what she is supposed to do anyway. All she had to do was put a magnet on her car and drive safely, and in March she won a free haircut, makeup and tae kwon do lessons.

"I thought it was neat how we got prizes, basically for following the law," she said.

That's why the 17-year-old Long Reach High School senior was at The Mall in Columbia on Wednesday night, handing out information and answering questions about the program.

"Since I really didn't do anything to win, I thought I'd come and help them," she said.

As it wraps up its second year, Courtesy on the Road, a nonprofit organization that promotes safe teen driving, has signed on nearly 3,000 students in Howard County and given away countless prizes for good driving.

On Wednesday, the organization was taking its message out of the schools.

Co-founders Lisa Morrow and Steffi Rubin had set up tables and signs in the mall's food court, and hired Electra Entertainment to play music by the likes of Bowling for Soup and Weezer. Every few minutes, raffle winners were announced, with prizes ranging from digital video discs to a limo ride and tickets to Fall Out Boy at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"It's actually killing several birds with one stone," Rubin said of the two-hour event. One goal was to ramp up awareness of the organization, she said. Another was to raise money, with 20 percent of the proceeds from Chik-fil-A purchases going to Courtesy on the Road.

The event also was an end-of-the-year party for safe drivers and an opportunity to recognize Centennial High School, the second winner of the program's annual Sheldon Award, recognizing the school with the most participation in Courtesy on the Road.

Rubin said Centennial won based on a point system that took into account the number of students who signed up (269), as well as Sheldon sightings and participation in a survey. Last year's Sheldon Award Winner was Glenelg High School.

Rubin and Morrow started Courtesy on the Road in 2005 with the idea that good driving deserves to be rewarded.

Rubin, a graphic designer, created a magnet of a cartoon-like black-and-white car and named it Sheldon. Students put the magnets on the back of their vehicles, and if they are spotted driving safely they are eligible for prizes such as coupons for restaurants, concerts or gas.

By now, Rubin said, the organization has built a strong stable of "spotters" throughout the county, who often send e-mail or text messages when they see a Sheldon magnet on a car that is being driven responsibly.

"We watch the way they pull out of the parking lot," said Morrow. "We follow them a little to make sure they use their turn signals.

In the program's first year, more than 1,100 students signed up. This year, the number jumped to 1,500, Rubin said. The program now has a partnership agreement with the school system. "That's when more doors opened for us," Morrow said.

That agreement, signed in February, means the school system supports Courtesy on the Road and allows its representatives into the schools to talk about the program, said Mary Schiller, manager of the school system's partnerships office.

The agreement also means that Courtesy on the Road information is included in the safe-driving classes that high school students must take before getting a school parking pass.

Courtesy on the Road also has created yellow-and-black traffic signs that include Sheldon and the words, "Be a courteous driver." The signs will be placed at the exits of each high school parking lot.

Schiller, who was at the mall Wednesday, said the program is a good fit with the school system because both promote student safety. And she noted that her son is 16. "If he wants to drive, he'll have a Sheldon sticker," she said.

Three police officers were on hand to lend support and answer questions from curious mallgoers. "It's a great program," said John McKissick, commander of the county Police Department's Special Operations Bureau. "We'll do whatever we can to help."

Kim Tosh, 17, a Long Reach High School senior, said she has not won a Courtesy on the Road prize, but she thinks she will eventually. She would drive safely even without the organization, she said. But she acknowledges that she is extra-careful because she knows somebody might be watching.

"It's like an extra incentive to look out and make sure you use your signal and let people over and whatever," she said.

Information on Courtesy on the Road: 443 285-9800, or www.courtesyontheroad.com.

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