How the Oklahoma Challenge is empowering teens to fight distraction — on their terms
In Oklahoma, crashes were surging and thousands of children were dying from distracted driving. In 2014, nearly 13,000 teen drivers aged 15-19 were involved in car crashes. In 2015, that number rose to nearly 14,000. In 2016, over 14,000 OK teens were in a car crash. 500 of them were seriously injured or killed. Something had to change.
Linda Terrell, Executive Director of Educational Alternatives, and Nele Rodgers, Associate Director of the Oklahoma Challenge, saw the rising toll of distracted driving on teen drivers. They decided to focus the Oklahoma Challenge’s efforts on reducing distracted driving.
They began by educating students across the state on the dangers of distracted driving. They were seeing progress, but wanted to accelerate the safety improvements.
In 2020, Linda reached out to CMT to see how we could help them raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. The result was that the OK Challenge launched a safe driving contest with our Safest Driver app.
Linda and Nele recently visited CMT HQ to present the success stories from their Safest Driver program and the impact it’s had on their students.
Before their presentation to CMT, we sat down with them to talk about the OK Challenge.
Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
CMT: What is the Oklahoma’s Challenge mission?
Terrell: We’re all about youth empowerment. Our goal is to create healthy and safe communities. We want our youth to feel empowered to figure out how we can reduce deaths in their own communities. And we want the communities to take this issue on.
Everyone agrees drinking and driving is dangerous. And everyone says they agree that distracted driving is dangerous. But they still do it. There is no stigma attached to distracted driving like there is with drunk driving.
We want to empower kids to take action. Kids got their parents to stop smoking. They got people to wear seatbelts. The kids have quite a voice. If the high school students talk to the middle school students and the little ones, they’re going to listen. Then they can all go tell their parents.
We’ve found that distracted driving education is important to teach kids who are younger than high school level. Their voice is incredibly important. We work with the drivers, high school students, and with the passengers. Those younger children who have a voice can say, “Hey, put your phone down.”
These high school kids can change the generation. They can work with younger kids and work with their parents. It’s all about youth empowerment. We want them to own the message and share it. It’s about positive peer pressure.
“We had no idea what the app would show us or how this would go, but it was so successful for the drivers. It was so powerful for us.” — Linda Terrell
CMT: How did the Oklahoma Challenge get its start?
Terrell: Back in the 1980s, the Oklahoma Challenge partnered with the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office (OHSO). They focused on drinking and driving and seatbelt use because that was the big issue back then.
In 2013, we reconnected with OHSO. They were talking about the “new epidemic” of distracted driving, and they didn’t have much going on with educating youth on distracted driving.
We thought we could help with this. We approached them with a grant to use the same model with the distracted driving issue and began our work with them again in 2014. It has been successful.
We used the same model back then as we do today. Empowering students to talk to each other about the dangers of drunk driving. We saw about a 50% decrease in youth deaths due to drunk driving at that time.
In 2016, 504 Oklahoma drivers aged 16-25 distracted by electronic devices were seriously injured or killed in crashes. As of 2020, that number has decreased to 377. Progress, but more still needed to be done. So we looked at how to take our mission to the next level. We then found CMT and the Safest Driver app.
CMT: Can you explain your partnership with CMT and Safest Driver?
Terrell: It was really serendipitous, actually. This all started back in 2020. Frankly, we were working with another organization, and the plan we had with them fell through four days before we were to launch this contest. I contacted a friend of mine, Joel Feldman, with End Distracted Driving, and he said he was working with Cambridge Mobile Telematics. He told me about your program, Safest Driver.
He put us in contact with Ryan McMahon, CMT’s SVP of Strategy. At first, Ryan wasn’t sure if we could do it in four days, but we saw that no one in Oklahoma had downloaded the Safest Driver app yet. So, we were able to market it that way because everyone who was going to download it was going to be a part of the contest.
Ryan worked his magic, and we were able to introduce it in September 2020. We had two weeks where we promoted the Safest Driver contest. We launched in October 2020 during the fall school year.
Then it was live. I was on my phone watching the leaderboard fill up. It was so exciting. We had hundreds of people sign up. We were sending out information to the teachers. They were giving it to the kids and having conversations.
It was spreading like wildfire. So many people were talking about this, and then we were able to start giving away gift cards. Coming from a poor state like Oklahoma, those gift cards made a huge impact on the kids and started a light-hearted, friendly competition.
We had no idea what the app would show us or how this would go, but it was so successful for the drivers. It was so powerful for us.
“Distracted driving is 100% preventable.” — Linda Terrell
CMT: How do they calculate crashes caused by distracted driving in OK today?
Terrell: Oklahoma has a distracted driving law in place, but it is not easily enforceable according to our law enforcement. The law is not strict enough. According to the law, when people crash, it is hard to prove that the cause was distracted driving.
Distracted driving crashes are not accurately calculated. I believe we can do much better in this area. It would not only require a more stringent law — it would require law enforcement to conduct distracted driver crash training to help them focus on this issue. And be able to detect it in a real-life scenario.
CMT: What are some of the biggest challenges for reducing distracted driving?
Terrell: The biggest challenges are the lack of enforcement from police when reporting distracted driving accidents and phone apps working while people are driving.
We hope that one day phone companies will not allow apps to work while people are driving and that Oklahoma’s distracted driving laws become more specific and stricter.
CMT: What’s the feedback you hear from the students?
Terrell: One of the most important things we’ve heard from students is that they do not want to cause death. No one wants their friends to die. No one wants their family to die. And they do not want to be the ones to cause anyone to lose a loved one.
Research shows now that if we explain to kids that this could happen to them, they are more likely to listen. We don’t want to use these horrible scare tactics that are overwhelming. We give them real information. This can happen to anyone. And we give them tools on how to drive safely.
The Family Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) officers shared these statistics to show their peers how they can make a positive impact on this issue.
CMT: What’s on your wish list for the next 12-18 months for road safety?
Terrell: We would love to see better distracted driving laws, law enforcement training, and more awareness about it for the general public. Not just saying, “Don’t text and drive.” We want to tell them how it affects you and your family.
Teach people how they can drive differently, what to do and what not to do. We want to have specific training for students teaching parents and maybe have a safe driving competition between students and parents.
We want to give youth more incentives for safe driving. Give out rewards and positive reinforcement for taking safe actions.
CMT: How can people get involved and help fight distracted driving?
Terrell: Talk about it constantly. If you read an article or hear a story about safe driving and it doesn’t talk about distraction, write to the author and give them information. Make sure people use the word “crash” or “wreck” instead of “accident.” An accident implies there is nothing that could be done to prevent it. Distracted driving is 100% preventable.
Download the Safest Driver app and have a personal contest with someone you love. Be the best role model you can be. Volunteer with a local youth group and share the message. Share it with your friends.
CMT: What are the next steps for the Oklahoma Challenge?
Rodgers: The Safest Driver contests have been so successful so far. We would love to have another one. The goal is to have one of these contests a year. We haven’t had one yet for 2022.
We are hoping to have one during the 2022-2023 school year in the spring. We still hear amazing feedback from the students who were involved in these contests. We want to keep it going.
CMT: What other safe driving organizations are doing a good job fighting distraction?
Terrell: There are many organizations across the country that fight distracted driving. Teens in the Driver’s Seat, Impact Teen Drivers, and EndDD are all organizations that do great work to fight distraction.