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Wesley Chapel driving course puts teens' focus on safety

Wesley Chapel High student Christi Via, 17, navigates cones in a rain-slicked parking lot at the school last week during the safe driving program.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Wesley Chapel High student Christi Via, 17, navigates cones in a rain-slicked parking lot at the school last week during the safe driving program.

WESLEY CHAPEL

Sixteen-year-old Michael Vizza swerved his dad's 2004 Chrysler van through a figure eight of orange cones set up in the parking lot of Wesley Chapel High School.

At the end of the maneuver, his van's tire brushed the bottom of a cone.

"Poor little kid standing at the school bus stop," joked Cpl. Julie Satre from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, who guided him through the training exercise from the passenger seat.

Vizza, soon to be a junior at Wesley Chapel High, and about 80 other county high school students participated in a two-day safe driving course at the school.

The course kicked off Thursday morning in the classroom where students learned the ins and outs of vehicle maintenance. They watched videos of accidents and footage of someone thrown from a car because he wasn't wearing a seat belt.

But what really hit home was a talk from Maria Laidley, whose son Matthew, a Wesley Chapel High senior, died in a wreck last August near the school.

She told the students how there was no such thing as a good day since her son died.

"It gets to your heart," said Christi Via, 17, who will be a senior at Wesley Chapel High. "You don't realize how one person can affect 30 or 40 people, or even an entire school."

Laidley's death was one of several that rocked Wesley Chapel High.

Former student William "Brad" Sowers, 19, died in an accident on a desolate stretch of a Virginia state road in June.

Tabatha Pastrana, 18, and her friend Kristin Gaskin, 17, were killed in May when Tabatha's car flipped on Interstate 75.

In an effort to turn the trend around, Wesley Chapel now requires students to complete the safe driving course in order to receive a permit to drive on campus.

Thursday afternoon, superintendent Heather Fiorentino stopped by to watch the course, which began in Pasco County last summer.

"The kids who have taken it have enjoyed it and said they learned so much," she said as she watched the students tackle the driving component of the course.

The dozen or so students with driver's licenses practiced evasive driving, braking and steering techniques in the parking lot. They learned how to avoid overcorrecting their vehicles, which could result in a rollover.

Cpl. Terra Winthrop, Wesley Chapel High School resource officer for the past seven years, outfitted students with goggles that mimicked the effects of drinking.

Winthrop has counseled students through the recent deaths of their peers. As she watched them stumble with the goggles, she hoped that these lessons would prevent another loss for the school.

"If I can get through to one," she said. "Then I have done my job."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (352) 521-6518.

Wesley Chapel driving course puts teens' focus on safety 08/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:21pm]
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