- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer often brings newfound freedom for the American teenager: a freshly earned driver’s license, a shiny new car, trips to the beach and road trips with friends with the radio blaring. Thanks to a program started by WJLA anchor and concerned dad Leon Harris, local teens and their families are learning that with driving privileges come heightened responsibility and danger.

Mr. Harris, 48 and a father of two teenagers, says he noticed an alarming increase in car crashes involving teens beginning in the summer of 2004 as he delivered the news from the evening anchor chair. From August to November of that year, he says, 32 young people were killed in car accidents in the Washington area.

“As a journalist, I was able to cover wars and disasters from an abstract perspective, but after I became a father, I could not look at stories from a detached perspective anymore,” explains Mr. Harris, who was a longtime correspondent for CNN before he joined WJLA.

He says reporting on car crashes involving children the same age as his own “started out sad, then it became numbing, and then it was irritating. It really [ticked] me off that this kept happening again and again.”

Putting his anger into action, Mr. Harris and WJLA launched the Drive to Stay Alive Program, airing a prime-time special the following spring hosted by Mr. Harris and former WJLA anchor Kathleen Matthews. The special chronicled the heart-wrenching stories of young people killed in the prime of life.

WJLA has given DVD copies of the special to local schools to be incorporated into their driver-education programs.

Not stopping there, Mr. Harris took his campaign to the streets by visiting schools and talking to children and their parents one on one about the dangers of driving, especially texting behind the wheel and the frequent role that drugs and alcohol play.

Since 2005, Mr. Harris has visited 50 to 60 Washington-area schools and has worked closely with at least four sets of parents whose children have been killed in local car wrecks.

Using the power of imagery at the school assemblies, Mr. Harris shows a montage of yearbook photos of students who have died in car crashes and photos of their decimated vehicles.

“They come in sometimes rowdy, but after they see the films and hear the stories, they are dead quiet,” he says.

In addition to hearing Mr. Harris, students also hear from parents.

“I call it the three ‘I’s.’ They think they are invincible. They are immature and inexperienced,” says Montgomery County police officer Tom Didone, who speaks with Mr. Harris in the Drive to Stay Alive assemblies.

“Nobody thinks [an accident] can happen to them, and I did not think anything like that could happen to me,” he says.

Last fall, Mr. Didone’s 15-year-old son Ryan was killed in a car crash involving four other teenagers. Ryan was not wearing a seat belt, and the person behind the wheel was a newly licensed driver.

“What we try to get across is parental control. Parents need to know who is driving and if the driver has a provisional license or not,” Mr. Didone says.

Mr. Harris says parents, who attend the school assemblies with their children, are often the tougher sell.

“They have a hard time seeing their kid as a human being that could do stupid things behind the wheel,” he says.

“I call them the naive Neds and Nells,” says Fred Cooke, whose 18-year-old daughter, Morgan, was killed in a car driven by an intoxicated driver going 80 mph in Clifton.

“You are kidding yourself if you think it can’t happen to you.”

Mr. Harris explains that the message students and parents should take home is not one of fear, but of caution. He says parents should not allow their children to be in a car with more than two people and should underscore the risk of “distracted driving,” or driving while talking on the phone, texting or eating.

Beginning in September, Mr. Harris will be back to school at assemblies already scheduled in St. Mary’s County, Md.

“He’s a journalist, and journalists have all of these awards, but there is no award big enough for what Leon is doing,” Mr. Cooke says. “I think they should give him the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Mr. Harris shrugs off the compliments but concedes he has noticed a slight decline in the number of teenage deaths he has to report these days.

“If there is any connection between that and what we are doing, then God bless us,” he says.

For more information about Drive to Stay Alive or to schedule a school assembly, send an e-mail to Abby Fenton at [email protected]

Wheels of charity

Bike to the Beach Inc., known as B2B, is a local nonprofit organization that promotes bicycling for recreation and environmentally friendly transportation. The group is recruiting new riders, volunteers and donors for its 2009 Autism Speaks Century Ride from the District to Bethany Beach, Del., to be held July 31.

This is the third ride partnership between B2B and Autism Speaks, the world’s largest autism research and advocacy group. The ride is designed to help raise money and awareness for the estimated 1.5 million Americans who have the neurological disorder, which affects 1 in 150 children. The ride raises its funds through corporate sponsorships and pledges of all amounts raised from riders’ friends and families. The ride raised $25,000 the first year and $125,000 the second year. This year’s goal is to surpass $200,000, according to Joey Schmitz, the co-founder and vice president of B2B, whose cousin has autism.

Mr. Schmitz says he already has reached his goal of 150 riders but is still looking for more before registration closes on Friday.

For information, visit www.biketothebeach.org.

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