MAPLEWOOD / WEST ORANGE, NJ — As two of the three winning schools in the U Got Brains Champion Schools competition, West Orange and Columbia high schools have each won a driving simulator from NJM Insurance Group. Of the 64 participating schools in the state that developed campaigns to address teen driving safety, CHS and WOHS, along with Burlington City High School, were the standouts.
“We know that teens are strong influences on other teens,” Violet Marrero, NJM consumer safety director, said in a phone interview on May 31. “Your friends have the biggest influence on what you do. So if you create this culture that will reach other students, that’s how change is made.”
The TV production students at CHS produced a public service announcement about slowing down when a traffic light turns yellow, called “Mellow for Yellow.” The PSA was shot by a professional film crew, which the CHS team won the right to work with when it proposed the project. It’s not the first year that teacher Anthony Campiglia’s students have entered the contest, but it’s the first time they’ve participated in about six years.
“We did it in the first three years, but not since,” he said in a phone interview on May 31. “Then we were talking about it and they came up with the idea, which really got the ball rolling. They just loved the title and it took off from there.”
The idea for the PSA came from one participating student’s actual experience of being hit by a car when the driver didn’t slow down at a yellow light, something that has also happened a couple of times outside the school, according to CHS senior Jasmine LeCount-McClanahan in a phone interview on June 1.
“There’s a light by our school and people have been hit before,” she said. “Sometimes when someone is driving and not stopping, by the time you slow down there’s too much momentum. Then something really, really bad can happen.”
Marrero said the topic that CHS chose was new, so the project stood out.
“No one had addressed yellow light-running,” she said. “A lot of times people don’t talk about people slowing down and not speeding up. It was an impressive PSA. They engaged their full student body and that’s remarkable.”
In addition to the PSA, the CHS students asked the school’s student body to sign a safe driving pledge and distributed car magnets to promote their cause.
“We don’t want people to brush off those little things,” LeCount-McClanahan said. “The small details are just as important when driving.”
Marrero was also impressed by the WOHS campaign, completed by students who are members of the Nikhil Badlani Foundation’s Youth Advisory Board. The Mountaineers worked on a letter-writing campaign in support of Michelle’s Law, which is coming up for a vote in this year’s state Assembly session.
The law, drafted in 2013 by Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who represents New Jersey’s 35th Legislative District, would make drug testing mandatory for any driver involved in a fatal accident. The law is named after Michelle Sous, a North Haledon resident who was struck and killed by a car in 2013. The driver of that vehicle was never given a drug or alcohol test.
“They were so proactive and engaged,” Marrero said of the WOHS students. “It was all student-run, and you don’t see that often. They had meetings and events throughout the year and did evidence-based surveys. The fact that high school students did all of that is great.”
NBF Youth Advisory Board members also held Safety Week in April at WOHS to educate students about traffic and driving safety in addition to unveiling a mural with the foundation’s safe driving pledge. As sophomores complete the school’s driver’s education course, they will take the pledge and add their thumbprints to the mural.
“We want to be ingrained in our school and in the community,” board President Darlene Folas, a WOHS junior, said in a phone interview on June 1. “It will be in the sophomore curriculum and the mural is in the hall and is a daily reminder to be a safe driver. And even if the bill doesn’t get passed this year, we still talked to people about it and made them aware.”
NBF President Sangeeta Badlani reiterated this in a phone interview on June 3.
“Our end goal wasn’t to win; we wanted to get them to advocate for traffic safety and make people aware,” she said. “What’s critical is the process. They’re working as a team and being involved in the community. They’ve learned a lot like public speaking and time management and those are things they can use in the future.”
But even if winning isn’t the goal, it’s still fun. Anika Fernandez, secretary of the NBF Youth Advisory Board, said the driving simulator will come in handy for WOHS driving students.
“We have one, but it’s a little bit older,” she said of the WOHS simulator in a phone interview on June 1. “And there’s so many sophomores that not everyone gets to try it. This is newer and might work better, and then more people can use it.”
The competition ran throughout the year, and Badlani said seeing the work culminate in a big project was nice.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “It’s nice for them to be recognized for the work that they put in. They were working hard on this for months.”
Photos Courtesy of Anthony Campiglia and Sangeeta Badlani