TRINITY — Mitchell High junior Cortney Bain admits it. She texts while driving.
"It's just there," she said.
But after attending a three-hour safe driving course this week — a new Pasco County School District requirement to get a high school parking permit — she plans to stow her phone while on the road.
"After this, I think I definitely will stop," Bain said.
That's reason enough for Cpl. Joe Koehler, the school's resource officer, to consider the Safe Behind the Wheel program a success.
"If I can get them to remember to stay alive when they drive, then I feel I've done my job," Koehler said.
That's not as easy a task as you might think.
Two different studies released last year found the Tampa Bay area to be the deadliest for teen drivers. Accidents occur at the schools too routinely.
Last school year, Koehler recalled, Mitchell saw a student drive out of the parking lot, roll and flip into a pond. Another student left campus only to get slammed by oncoming traffic and crash into a pole. Two students had to be flown to hospitals after their car flipped in an alcohol-related case.
Then there are more routine things like students not wearing seat belts, perhaps one of the most prevalent offenses.
"Students make a lot of bad choices in the parking lot. They make a lot of bad choices going out onto the road," Mitchell principal Jim Michaels said. "The more education, the better."
During the free driving course in the school cafeteria, Koehler stressed the importance of thinking behind the wheel. He spoke about the need to reduce distractions, focus on the road and understand the forces at play in a car.
At one point, he asked the students whether they thought 45 mph is a high rate of speed.
The students thought not.
What if you knew that such speed translates to 66 feet per second? Or two-thirds the length of a football field in just three seconds?
And then your cell phone rings.
"Is our brain trained to react to that at 2:33 p.m. on U.S. 19?" Koehler asked.
"So, now you feel that 45 mph is a high rate of speed? Why?"
Well, because of the different perspective Koehler offered up, that's why.
"It's making you think," senior Jordan Mizerak said during a break. "I'm learning a lot of stuff."
Sophomore Jason Gilmer had expected the class to be a waste of time. Like many others in the room, he came only to get access to a parking pass.
Gilmer said the videos of flipping cars and drunken drivers vividly made the point about the potential dangers of driving. The lessons Koehler provided about how to drive smart should make it easier to arrive at safer choices, he added.
"It's useful information," Gilmer said. "And I don't really feel like dying this early."
Koehler said he figured many students would come because they're required, but leave feeling more aware. Mitchell, along with all the other high schools, will continue to offer the safe driving course this week and into the school year, so all students have the opportunity to attend.
The resource officers plan to tackle the issue in other ways, too. Beginning the first day of classes, officers will hand out coupons for free Slurpees to students who are wearing their seat belts, to reinforce that habit.
For those who don't heed the positive rewards, the officers will come back about a month later with the other side of the equation: tickets that carry a $114 fine for violators.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.