PEORIA — A state police trooper flashed his motorcycle’s red lights and blared his siren to stop an SUV-load of teens Thursday morning. Nearby, a Tazewell County cop told a 15-year-old girl to count to 10 with one leg raised.
Riley Jeckel, a Delavan High School student, couldn’t get past 2. She laughed lightly each time she tipped to the weight the officer had strapped on her leg to break her balance.
She wasn’t intoxicated, but Jeckel and the pulled-over teens now know what they can expect should they ever get behind the wheel impaired.
That is, if they and their passengers live through the experience.
Michelle Watson was there to soberly remind them that her 18-year-old son didn’t.
The students were among about 100 others from several Tazewell County high schools who took a day of special driving classes and practice on the Illinois Air National Guard Base tarmac at Greater Peoria International Airport.
The setting was the Ford Motor Co.’s Driving Skills for Life Program, a global project by the company to teach young drivers skills and experiences they don’t receive in school-based driver’s education courses.
It returned to the area, and several elected and law enforcement officials gathered, for the 10th anniversary of a Tazewell-based effort to curb teen driving deaths that’s been adopted statewide.
To recall the reason Operation Teen Safe Driving (OTSD) was launched, Watson told those gathered how her son, Jeremy “Hoss” Watson, and two friends joined the ranks of 15 Tazewell teens who died in impaired driving accidents over 15 tragic months in 2005-2006.
Her son, a passenger, died instantly, but his friends lingered in the burning car for a half-hour after it overturned into a ditch south of Pekin on Father’s Day 2006, in the morning hours after a drinking party, Watson said.
Grief-stricken for years, Watson turned to action. She has told her son’s story to many high school classes as they approach their senior prom nights and graduation. To drive her message home, “I give them 10 minutes of homework,” she said.
“I tell them to take five minutes with their family in a room, and listen to the family laughter. Then, go to a room alone and think if their family would be laughing if they weren’t there.”
Sheriff Robert Huston recalled the widespread community support for OTSD that Tazewell officials received when they gathered to plan the program, which includes smaller versions of Ford’s Safe Driving program provided to area high school driving classes.
“The program really took off,” he said, with the help of annual grants Ford has provided.
Teen driving deaths have declined 50 percent in Illinois since 2007, when OTSD began in Tazewell and began its statewide spread, said Paul Lorton, director of safety programs and engineering with the Illinois Department of Transportation.
“That’s impressive,” Lorton said, “but we can do more.”
Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin