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Tragedy to turnaround

How 15 teen driving deaths in 15 months spurred a community into action

It was Sept. 30 when Lisa Scott, a mother of three, was watching the 10 o’clock news and saw the breaking news alert: A 16-year-old boy lost control of his speeding vehicle and struck a tree, killing himself and his two 15-year-old passengers. The driver had his license for a week. To make matters worse, it was the second teen car crash in the county in six months.

Scott, who couldn’t help but think of her oldest son, Drew, also a new driver, calls the news “terrifying,” adding, “You are sending your most precious cargo off in that vehicle.”

The teens in the September crash were from Pekin, a town of about 30,000 people and the county seat of Tazewell, which boasts upwards of 135,000 people on 650-square miles of mostly farmland in central Illinois. Although the kids weren’t from the Scott’s Tremont, Ill. village, a rural area with about 2,100 residents and a grain elevator as its tallest landmark; she says the kids were part of their broader community.

Jeff Lower agrees. “It doesn’t matter where you go, somebody knows some of these teens who were dying,” says the Pekin resident and chief deputy of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department. “My own kids went to high school with four of the kids.”

Scott told her son what happened, fully aware he—like most teens—thought he was invincible.

What no one knew, though, was that in the 15 months from March 2005 to July 2006, Tazewell County and the surrounding communities would mourn the loss of 15 teenagers who died in crashes caused by everything from speeding, alcohol and drugs to inexperience, fatigue and poor lighting.

A month later, in October, a motorcycle crash on a dark rural road killed two boys. Three months later, alcohol and excessive speeds contributed to the deaths of two Tremont teens.

“I was at home watching TV, and we started getting phone calls about the situation,” explains Jeff Hinman, superintendent of the Tremont School District.

Headshot of Jeff in a suit and tie and glasses
Jeff Hinman, Tremont School District. superintendent Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Hinman didn’t have time to dwell on his grief. The number of teens dying on local roads was escalating, and the community was reeling. Before classes resumed, the then-high school principal needed to assemble a team to help the school’s 300 students, teachers and other staff members process their own confusion and sorrow.

“We mobilized local clergy and counselors at other schools just to provide space for kids to talk with if they need to,” Hinman says. “And then we had to make them available to attend the visitations and funerals.”

Although the tragic crashes transpired 11 years ago, like other Tazewell County residents, Drew Scott recalls where he was when he heard about his Tremont schoolmates.

“I was at church when it happened,” he says, adding he knew the boys casually. “I remember walking into school the next day, and it was silent. Every hallway was silent. They had grief counselors for us, and we spent the day sitting around and talking and connecting with people.”

His family attended both visitations, but Lisa Scott says her fear of losing her own son made acknowledging the families’ losses difficult.

Tazewell Country 2005-2006 crash timeline

Law enforcement did. There came a point when the Tazewell County sheriff’s deputies began to dread radio dispatches about a crash with unknown injuries.What’s more, despite the eight fatalities in less than a year, Drew Scott says kids didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening. “I think a lot of what we felt initially was that what was happening was sort of unavoidable. We, as high school kids and new drivers, didn’t realize this was unusual.”

“We all would think, ‘Oh no, is this another teenager?’ remembers Deputy Sheriff John Shallenberger.

Soon, the officers began asking what was next. “There was no pattern to it,” says Shallenberger, a Pekin resident.

Not knowing why there were so many fatalities added to the devastation.

“It wasn’t like we could say they were all speeding or they were all doing something wrong,” Lower says. “There were different reasons. There was speeding and some alcohol and drugs, sure; but one ran a stop sign. Some were just inexperienced; one cause was fatigue. We had one run into a piece of farm equipment. There were all kinds of reasons. It made me worry much more about my own children.”

Getting the life-altering call

When his mom and pop, Michelle and Gary Watson, traveled to Missouri for a family member’s funeral, Jeremy Watson did what many adventurous teenagers do when their parents are away: He invited friends over for a party. Why not? Not only was the house free from parents but also his 21-year-old brother, Josh, was at charity event for the evening.

Jeremy and his older brother with their arms around each other smilingJeremy (left) on graduation day from Midwest Central High School in Manito, Ill., with older brother, Josh "Goose" Watson
Jeremy standing lakeside holding a fish in each handJeremy Watson during a fishing trip with his dad, Gary Watson
Jeremy and his dad his straw hats holding rifles in a prairie settingJeremy and his dad, Gary Watson, on their last hunting trip
Jeremy in his graduation gown with his arm around his girlfriend with two white trucks in the backgroundJeremy Watson and his girlfriend Lacey Shelabarger on high school graduation day in 2006

A recent high school graduate, Jeremy and his girlfriend, Lacey, had big plans.  They would live in the country and have a bunch of kids.  Lacey wanted a horse; and though Jeremy had a good job working at his dad’s construction company, he’d didn’t yet have the money to buy it for her. So, before the party on June 17, he diligently bailed hay for a local farmer to work off the cost. 

Headshot of Michelle wearing formal jewelry
Michelle Watson

The next morning, as the 18-year-old’s parents made their way back home, Michelle Watson's cellphone rang.

“Our soon-to-be daughter-in-law called and asked us where we were,” explains Watson, who adds they had just stopped to grab a bite to eat. “She told us to skip lunch and come home. I asked what was going on and she hung up. I called back.”

Though Josh didn’t want them to learn while they were on the road that Jeremy was dead, Watson pried out the details.

“My heart went to my throat. Numbness. You just don’t believe what you just heard.” After that, she says there was a lot of tears and a lot of screaming.

Michelle Watson recites the story plainly though not matter-of-factly at schools and at the request of parents at their wit’s end. She says the events unfolded like this: Apparently, Josh arrived at their Topeka, Ill., home (located just outside of Tazewell) after his charity event and shut down Jeremy’s party, taking car keys from teenagers too impaired to drive. Then Jeremy and two boys—who had just gotten off work and hadn’t been drinking at the party—wanted to grab a bite. Since Jeremy, who had had a few beers, wasn’t going to be driving, Josh said no problem.

Information from detectives, the coroner and sheriff’s deputies reveals the remaining details: After leaving Steak ‘N Shake, the boys went to Walmart where Jeremy’s friends purchased a can of air dust, used mostly to clean computer keyboards. Because purchasers must be 18, the story clerk properly requested ID.

Then, Watson explains, “The driver sent a mass text message to other kids saying ‘huffing.’” Huffing is one term for inhaling chemical vapors to get high.

It wasn’t long afterward that the driver passed out and the vehicle, which was now on a Tazewell County road, zoomed more than 1,700 feet, overturned, caught fire and killed all three 18-year-olds. It was a Sunday morning. Father’s Day. Four weeks after the teens graduated high school.

Months later, Watson learned that in the 12 hours before getting behind the wheel, the driver and other passenger had also snorted an eight-ball of cocaine and smoked five joints. “We didn’t get to see them because they were burnt so badly. They had to be identified by DNA and dental records.”

Before getting the call that changed her life, Watson says her heart went out to the parents whose children died in the previous wrecks. She knew then: “A parent should never have to bury their child.”

After burying their youngest son, the Watsons sold their house, moved to Manito, Ill., and stopped celebrating Mother’s and Father’s Day. Gary Watson has only recently begun hunting and fishing again.

Adds Michelle Watson, “For two years, we didn’t do Christmas and didn’t do Thanksgiving. Your whole world falls apart.”

Three steel crosses line the highway where the boys died in the car accidentSteel crosses, made by Gary Watson, mark the location on Towerline Road in Tazewell County, Ill., where Jacob "Jake" Barding, 18; Jeremy "Hoss" Watson, son of Gary, 18; and John "Big John" Stadsholt, 18, died in a car crash. Friends spray-painted “We miss you. We’ll never forget. RIP boys” on the concrete culvert. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Coming together for change

Everybody wanted to do something, but nobody knew what to do, says Chief Deputy Lower. “It just seemed like there was no end.”

Everyone from the Sheriff’s department and Health Department to teens, parents and business leaders began working toward solutions. Deputy Shallenberger says deputies started running ideas by students on the County Youth Board. “They helped us create videos talking about what they went through.”

Students putting on racing helmetsStudents prepare to participate in a safe driving demonstration. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen
Sheriff smiling with his squad car in the backgroundTazewell County Deputy Sheriff John Shallenberger helped develop the county’s Decision Driving program Photograph: Sam VarnHagen
Looking down the street with a car and a bike coming toward the camera. A dangerous curve ahead sign in seen in the foreground The Tazewell Teen Initiative included having engineers identify dangerous county roads and add necessary signage. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen
Students and instructor wearing racing helmets in an Polaris UTV running over safety cones during a demonstrationThe Pirate Supply Store and King Carl’s Emporium is a cover for 826 Valencia’s tutoring and writing center.
Lisa and her child smiling in front of a school buildingLisa Scott (right) hopes her youngest child, Mary, (left) understands the importance of driving safely. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen
Group shot of students with fists in the air with instructors in parking lot next to UTVStudents celebrate completion of a safe driving demonstration. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

Youth Board member Drew Scott said the group was addressing issues of youth drug prevention and sex, but made drunk driving prevention and seatbelt use another priority.

The community soon established the four-part Tazewell Teen Initiative, a multifaceted intergovernmental group made up of Enforcement, Engineering, Emergency and Education subcommittees.

Enforcement was a partnership between the Sheriff’s office, Illinois State Police, County Coroner and local law enforcement.

“We started giving kids safety citations—like a prepaid gas card or something like it—when they did well,” Shallenberger says. “Students who maintained good grades and didn’t get a ticket during the year would get entered into a drawing to win a car.”

The Engineering subcommittee reviewed various roadways to identify and improve the most dangerous intersections and installed better signage, including the bright arrows called chevrons, signaling to drivers that a potentially dangerous curve is coming. Emergency Services (EMTs and fire personnel) united to find solutions. And the Education subcommittee, comprised of teens, the Health Department, Illinois Department of Transportation (IDot), the American Red Cross and others, created billboards and radio and television commercials.

Mike Stout, then director of the Division of Traffic Safety for IDot and a Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) representative, says county and city, town law enforcement, state police, school superintendents, high school representatives, businesses and municipalities all gathered to discuss the issues.

At the same time, a state task force was discussing the lack of restrictions on new teenage drivers. Informing them about the tragedies in Tazewell County helped push them toward adopting graduated driver’s licenses, explains Stout, who’s now retired.

Then, the state’s Secretary of Transportation told Stout about Ford Driving Skills for Life, a free program Ford Motor Company Fund, the GHSA and safety experts founded in 2003 to help teens gain safe driving skills beyond what’s taught in most driver education programs.

Ford driving skills infographic

Ford DSFL proposed a challenge where each of the seven high schools would develop their own teen safe driving programs, and then present those programs for judging a few months later, says Jim Graham, global manager for Ford DSFL.Ford challenges students to do better

In 2007, each school received a $3,000 budget toward its programs. At the end, they could win $5,000 toward a school party and savings bonds.

Schools held safety days that included a poster contest and yielded slogans like “A Click Every Time Keeps the Cops Off Your Behind.”

Scott says Tremont High School started with seatbelt use. “We just hid and, as covertly as we could, watched to see how many students came in and went out with seatbelts,” says Scott. “We would do announcements on the intercom about how well we did.”

Graham and Stout remember Dee Mack High School in Mackinaw, Ill., covering the town with signs, and messages related to safe driving.

“We did the program and then all the schools got to come to the ride-and-drive event, which we’re doing the 10th anniversary on,” Shallenberger says. “It was neat to see how they worked together.”

Superintendent Hinman says on top of the news stories surrounding the crashes, having Ford DSFL come into the community created an awareness. “It made people think ‘Oh, my gosh. This is really important.’”

More important than the competition, Graham says, was the hands-on driving clinic program that followed. DSFL selected students, faculty, driver’s education teachers and others from each school and set up a small course at Pekin airport. The program put participants through real-world driver training with professional drivers from all over the United States.

“A lot of the crashes happened because they were speeding or because of lack of skills,” Graham says. “We focused on providing advance driving skills and on changing their mindset about driving. Making sure they don’t speed, don’t drink and drive, that they buckle up. We taught them about spacing between vehicles and potential hazards, about what to do when there’s something in front of you, about impaired driving. Our hope was they would learn some things and take it back to the schools and then that information would cascade to the kids who didn’t get to go.”

Hinman recollects the simulation where kids would put on goggles and drive golf carts. “That was an eye-opening experience for them because they were able to experience what impaired driving felt like. It hit home because they could compare it to what it was like when you were not impaired.”

Student standing next to red car with Driving Skills banner on the side Drew Scott in in 2007 during the first Driving Skills for Life class (left) and him now. Scott is currently an elementary school teacher. Photograph: Sam VarnHagen

The professional drivers showed Drew Scott what to do if his car went into a skid. His mom, Lisa Scott, gained an appreciation for how kids watch their parents and absorb driving habits from them. She also realized it takes more than parents to teach good driving skills and that most schools don’t have the resources to teach kids what they need to know. “When we tell our kids stuff, they don’t really listen. But when a professional driver is putting the car in a skid and getting it out, they listen.

“That tragedy was terrifying,” Scott adds. “We as a community, as parents and as a student body took the resources Ford had to offer and worked with the kids closely to reduce teen deaths.”

Indeed, after the County united and the DSFL program started, Shallenberger says the community went five years without one teen fatality. He says the program even went statewide, to 105 high schools.

Graham says the eight-year statewide program, called Operation Teen Safe Driving, was a partnership between Ford DSFL, the Illinois Department of Transportation and Allstate Insurance. “Each school got a financial stipend for them to do things in their school and in their community to get the word out about teen safe driving, just like in Tazewell County,” he says.

In all, Graham estimates Operation Teen Safe Driving, which received national awards, trained more than 300,000 students, parents and community and business leaders.

“At the end of those eight years, teen deaths in Illinois declined 50 percent. That’s huge,” Graham says. “Graduated driver’s licenses helped. Everybody working together helped. That’s a big deal.”

Shallenberger and Deputy Chuck Linton—who helped develop the Tazewell County’s Decision Driving program and promote Operation Teen Safe Driving—along with deputies Jeff Rogers and Rich Brock, continued educating teens even after the program ended.

Even Michelle Watson began educating students and parents about the dangers of impaired driving. “I jumped in the following year (2007) and started speaking at the schools when the Red Cross started doing these mock prom crashes,” she says.

Older teen drivers (ages 18-20) are twice as likely as young teen drivers (ages 15-17) to be involved in fatal crashes between midnight and 6:00amShe adds, “If I can save one parent, I’ve done my job.”She tells students: “My son, Jeremy, had a job, a girlfriend, a four-wheeler. He had a dog. He had a life. Don’t make your mom have to pick out your casket. Make your choices wisely. If you get into trouble, call your parents. Yeah, they are going to be upset, but at least you’ll be alive.”

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