Seneca Valley teen hopes fellow students catch the 'safety bug'

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 9:22 p.m.

Sometimes, it takes more than words to make a serious point.

That's what the 60 SADD-chapter members at Seneca Valley Senior High School have come to understand. Kaitlyn Burkett, a senior and new to the group that discourages students against making distracted decisions, based a grant application on that fact and was awarded $2,150 to keep students safe behind the wheel.

The money, contributed via a partnership between The Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and The Allstate Foundation, will be spent on bringing safe-driving training to her peers this spring.

The “FOCUS – Action Against Distraction” program offers simulated situations regarding distracted and impaired driving that allow teen drivers to experience the consequences of both.

The Safety Bug, which features a custom-engineered Volkswagen that creates an impaired driving experience for licensed drivers, will return to the Harmony campus because of her efforts.

A mock crash, complete with emergency responders, also will be staged.

“I wanted to help more than one person,” Burkett of Cranberry said, when she connected the grant to the work she was doing for her senior project.

“I wanted to make my school safer, the kids safer, their friends, their parents and the community.”

The 17-year-old has been driving for one year, but she knew about local deaths in the last few years caused by distracted driving.

Burkett's mother, a nurse educator who works in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital, brought the point home to her daughter by describing some of the injuries she had seen.

Ashley Zaso, the Seneca Valley's SADD faculty advisor, also brings years of experience on the subject to her position.

During high school, she was a member of the club, even serving as president.

Linda Richard, her faculty advisor at North Hills, had encouraged her to continue working with the organization in the future.

This year, she took over the leadership role at Seneca Valley, in addition to her English and Speech classes.

“I feel very strongly about the mission of the organization,” Zaso, 26, said.

“Particularly at the high school level, we see so much tragedy related to drugs, violence and reckless driving.”

Distracted driving and drunk driving, she said, are urgent concerns.

“The number of distractions in a vehicle is endless,” Zaso said, listing talking on and fiddling with cell phones, GPS systems, the radio, other devices for playing music and passengers.

“There is so much else going on in the car that the focus is easily taken away from the road and the task at hand.”

It's a situation, she said, that won't be changing any time soon.

Unfortunately, the dangers of drugs or distracted driving often need a first-hand or close-friend experience to have an impact on teens.

“Hearing statistics or seeing news stories doesn't always impact them as they often have the ‘it can't happen to me' attitude,” Zaso of Shaler Township said.

“Students and adults are desensitized to these issues due to the ever growing presence of our media. Sadly, and ironically, the more we see it, the less scary it seems.”

But she, Burkett and the chapter will keep trying to reinforce the safe-driving message.

“If we can impact one person from making a destructive decision by making him/her think twice, it is worth it,” Zaso said.

“Young people have so much to look forward to with their whole lives ahead of them. Sometimes, a simple reminder can save a life.”

Burkett acknowledged the youthful perspective.

“Most teens think they can do everything,” she said.

“They think they're invincible. But you can't do everything.”

Through the grant and activities it will provide, she hopes to reach out beyond the classroom.

“It's helping everyone, not just the kids our age,” she said.

“Everyone's driving. One death affects a lot of people.”

Dona Dreeland is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. She can be reached at

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