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Ridin' safe
Norcross students attend Operation Drive Smart expo

NORCROSS - Police officers often try to educate motorists about traffic safety by enforcing laws after they are broken, but when teens are involved, officers hope the youths learn the lessons before making a deadly mistake on the road.

About 1,200 juniors and seniors at Norcross High School were presented with several lessons Tuesday during the Operation Drive Smart expo, hosted by the Duluth Police Department's Community Oriented Policing Division. Agencies including the Gwinnett County Police Department, Norcross Police Department, Georgia State Patrol and Gwinnett Medical Center also participated.

Stations at the exposition focused on topics such as the importance of wearing a seat belt, why it's dangerous to drink and drive, and how difficult it can be for a truck driver to spot a vehicle traveling in one of its blind spots.

"We want to take a proactive approach and save as many lives as possible," Duluth Police Officer Liz Strickland said. "If we can save one life through this program, we feel like we've been successful."

Jonathan Patterson, the principal of Norcross High School, said the statistics about teenagers and traffic accidents are frightening. He said he hoped the expo helped students learn about the real-life consequences of some driving decisions.

"It's difficult to decide to take instructional time out to do things, but this is one period out of one day of the year," Patterson said. "I think when it's all said and done, it's worth it."

Mayra Perez, a junior, said she'll remember the information presented at the expo because the officers weren't just using scare tactics. They talked about real situations to which students could relate, she said.

"I'm just starting to drive," she said. "This just makes me more aware of some of the outcomes of unsafe driving."

Dan Heckman, a junior, said he was surprised by some of the simulations, such as one in which students donned "DUI goggles," which impaired their visual judgment.

"I couldn't walk in a straight line without falling over," he said.

With the help of a grant from the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, the Duluth Police Department brings the expo to high schools throughout the state. The Police Department received a $40,400 grant last year for the program, and they'll receive another one this October, said Frederick Huff, a planner for the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

SideBar: Teen traffic fatalities

The following chart shows the number of 15- through 19-year-olds who have been killed in motor vehicle accidents.

County / 2000 / 2001 / 2002 / 2003 / 2004 / 2005 / 2006

Barrow / 1 / 1 / 3 / 2 / 1 / 1 / 2

Cobb / 17 / 5 / 6 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 11

Fulton / 17 / 9 / 12 / 13 / 10 / 10 / 8

Gwinnett / 12 / 11 / 9 / 15 / 6 / 13 / 20

Hall / 1 / 6 / 5 / 3 / 5 / 8 / 2

Jackson / 0 / 2 / 3 / 1 / 3 / 1 / 1

Georgia / 181 / 199 / 186 / 192 / 157 / 187 / 177