By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Parents who have qualms about their teen getting behind the wheel can rest a bit easier through a Michigan Sheriffs’ Association-backed program.
The program, “Sheriffs Telling Our Parents and Promoting Educated Drivers” — or STOPPED — informs parents any time a vehicle registered in the program is pulled over or involved in an accident, even if no ticket is issued.
“[Teens] are at the dangerous intersection of inexperience and risk taking,” said Terry Jungel, executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association. “It’s not only dangerous for the teen driver, it’s dangerous for the people the teen driver may hit. It is in all of society’s best interest to make sure these teen drivers are driving safely, because they’re not hitting other teen drivers, they’re hitting us.”
Those who register for the free program receive a STOPPED sticker, which is applied to the driver’s side window. When a traffic stop occurs, the officer will send the number found on said sticker to the Sheriffs’ Association.
From there, parents are sent information via mail or email — why the vehicle was stopped, when and where the stop occurred, whether a ticket was issued and how many people were in the vehicle.
“Putting the parent back in the car really reduces the risk, I think, of actions that would jeopardize their safety or anyone else’s,” Jungel said. “The sticker creates a partnership between law enforcement and the parents in that we help enforce both society and parental rules.”
Parents hopping in the car for a grocery run should not worry, however — information will only be sent if the vehicle’s driver is 21 or younger.
The program originated in Onondaga County, New York, but Michigan is the only state to feature the program statewide. Michigan’s program — boasting over 30,000 registered vehicles — gets a large amount of its financial support via donations from the insurance company State Farm through their Celebrate My Drive program.
According to the Sheriffs’ Association, the main goal of STOPPED is to lower the number of teen injuries and fatalities in motor vehicle accidents. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 20, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
“Teen drivers are less experienced drivers. They develop poor driving habits that can escalate and even last a lifetime during their first few years behind the wheel,” Manistee County Undersheriff John O’Hagan said. “This is another tool that law enforcement can use to work in collaboration with parents to make sure kids are acting responsibly.”
Michigan has seen a decline in the number of teen traffic accidents in past years — with teen crashes declining 37.7 percent from 2004 — the year the program was introduced — to 2013, according to the Michigan Department of State Police. While many factors contribute to these numbers, Jungel said that STOPPED and similar driver safety programs play some role.
“This being on the window is a constant reminder to the child; if I get stopped, my mom’s going to be contacted, my dad’s going to be contacted,” he said.
While STOPPED has been in Michigan for over a decade, the program has recently gotten more support and attention in some areas, including Manistee County.
The county began advertising the program in 2012, and also recently assigned a patrol officer to spread the word, setting up booths at school events and distributing brochures to local businesses.
“We are stepping up to get the word out,” O’Hagan said. “It is our hope parents will look at it as a way to stay in touch with their kids when they are getting out on the roadways, showing their independence.”
STOPPED has been around longer in other counties, such as Marquette, which debuted its program in 2007.
“It gives the parents a small peace of mind,” said Capt. David Lemire, of Marquette County Sheriff’s Office.
According to Jungel, support varies by county, depending on the enthusiasm of those presenting it and how aggressively they spread information. Program participation has tended to rise steadily the longer the program is available, however.
“It’s growing in leaps and bounds, but there are some areas that simply haven’t got a focus yet on teen driving safety,” Jungel said. “Those areas that have realized how important that is, the numbers are fairly significant.”
Jungel said the program is also helpful to police officers, giving them an alternative to writing a ticket that could suspend a first-year license.
“As a former patrol officer myself, our goal is to change behavior, not to write tickets,” he said. “So anytime we have an option that gives us an alternative to writing a ticket, it’s better for everybody. If I know that I have parents that are actively involved in that child’s life, and the parents are going to correct the behavior, I don’t need to write the ticket.”
Support for the program in schools has grown since the program’s introduction in 2004, with about 50 Michigan high schools using the STOPPED sticker as their student parking pass, and others allowing officers to speak to students, set up booths at school events or present information in drivers education classes.
“I think we’re all on the same team,” Jungel said. “Getting the support from the educational system is huge, because that’s where teens learn their basic driving skills. Most kids are getting their license while still in high school.”
The secretary of state in Michigan has also shown support, with a STOPPED pamphlet included in every teen driving packet.
In 2011, the program gained national recognition when it was named a “bright idea” by Harvard University, along with 35 other programs. It was one of two Michigan programs to be recognized that year.
“In a utopian world, I’d like to see this program in every state across this great nation,” said Jungel. “You could register your car in the Leelanau peninsula, and you’d be notified if your child was stopped in the Keys. You could register your car in Washington state, and be notified if your car is stopped in Washington D.C.”
While no other state approaches STOPPED support on a statewide scale, New York’s program has spread from its original county to those surrounding it. According to Jungel, the Michigan program’s recognition via Bright Ideas has helped it catch the attention of other sheriffs.
“There are places around the nation where I’ve had sheriffs call and get the information so they can start it in their county,” Jungel said.
By BROOKE KANSIER