NEW PORT RICHEY — The 2006-07 school year was a tough one at River Ridge High School. A succession of tragedies hit the campus as four young men, all River Ridge students at some point, lost their lives in separate traffic accidents.
"It affected the whole school," said Emily Kanar, 17. "It was unbelievable. It was just one after another."
So she and classmate Stephanie Coleman, 18, decided to try something to prevent it from happening again.
The two girls, both members of Future Business Leaders of America, were already mulling over a required community project for the club. They decided to launch Community Awareness of Road Safety, or CARS, to better inform their peers about the dangers of teen driving. They plastered informative posters across the campus and conducted polls about their peers' driving habits.
"We're so new (as) drivers and I just think kids make rash decisions," Emily said. "It's not just about drinking and driving. It's about road rage, speeding, text messaging and not wearing your seat belt."
Their efforts earned them second place in the 2006-07 FBLA state competition and the chance to go to national competition.
And that's where it ended.
This year, Denise Russo, and Hailey Mackin, both 16, have taken the wheel of the CARS project. Last week, the two conducted mandatory assemblies in the school theater for all River Ridge High School students.
Denise and Hailey were understandably nervous when they took to the stage. Not an unusual emotion when some of your peers — perhaps the "invincible" kind — are laughing it up in the back rows.
But the two came armed with sobering statistics.
They showed Simple Plan's music video for Untitled, which depicts the far-reaching impact of drunken driving.
Featured speakers Kristen Ainsworth and her daughter NaToshah Govoruhk, 18, a River Ridge senior, took turns sharing their grief over the loss of River Ridge student Justin Shoffner, 18, who had lived with their family for six years before he died in a car accident on State Road 54.
"I wanted to let the kids know that it can still happen even when you're doing everything right," said Ainsworth, 40. "He wasn't drinking; he wasn't doing drugs. ... We'll never know why he locked up his brakes and went over the median and hit two trucks head on."
"Pay attention to the way people around you drive," NaToshah told the students in the theater, which had become so quiet you could hear a pin drop. "Pay attention to the way you drive."
The presentation also featured an informative video produced by Denise and Hailey that had interviews with 20 River Ridge students ages 14-18.
Sixteen of the 20 students interviewed readily admitted to riding with someone who had been drinking alcohol.
Many owned up to not knowing the blood alcohol level at which Florida law presumes impairment (0.08), or that traffic crashes were the No. 1 killer of teens.
Not good, but in the end, most of those students said they felt better informed about the perils of teen driving after being interviewed and hearing the facts.
"It didn't shock me, but it saddened me to see that so many kids are so unaware. They think that having one or two drinks is okay," said Emily's mom, Laura Kanar, who watched the presentation. "But if you can convince one kid that it's a poor choice, then that's good."
"I know we're not going to hit everyone," said Denise. "But if we reach just one ... I think we did that."