May 17, 2022 — Graduation season is underway, and students are donning caps and gowns to join their fellow graduates on bleachers, stages, and in seating areas inside and out, ready for their names to be called and to take their first steps into the larger world.
Too often, there are seats that remain unfilled: tributes to students lost in preventable crashes on New York’s roadways.
PEF members at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) work tirelessly every day to make sure all those seats are filled going forward.
“We work in partnership with law enforcement, not-for-profits, health departments, school administrators and community organizations to raise teen driver awareness because they are at risk for traffic crash injuries and fatalities,” said PEF Executive Board and Contract Team member Maureen Kozakiewicz, a highway safety program representative with the DMV. “We want to make sure every student is at their graduation and that there are ‘no empty chairs.’ We work collaboratively to save lives.”
The No Empty Chair campaign, launched by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee (GTSC) in 2014, brings together partners to educate teen drivers about the dangers of speeding, distracted driving, underage drinking, driving while drowsy, and to promote safe driving habits.
“Motor vehicle crashes are higher among teens 16 to 19,” Kozakiewicz said. “In New York state, speed is one of our most concerning issues. Impairment, distraction, and drowsy driving, all of these are top causes of crashes, especially for younger drivers.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death for U.S. teens. Per mile driven, teen drivers in this age group are nearly three times as likely to be in a fatal crash as drivers aged 20 or older.
“We in traffic safety, we don’t call anything an accident,” Kozakiewicz said. “Every crash has resulting contributing factors. There is a reason why a crash occurs. In New York State we call them crashes because injury and death on the highway are predictable and preventable.
“That’s what we do, we look at crashes and we work with law enforcement to figure out what were the contributing factors,” she said. “Most of us who are outside traffic safety don’t even realize. There is not an awareness of everything that goes on when someone is hurt or killed on our roadways.”
Recently, Kozakiewicz said, the No Empty Chair campaign visited Niagara County, bringing together 900 students to show them the dangers of unsafe driving. Showing them the impact of these behaviors, the professionals drive their message home.
“There’s usually an ‘aha’ moment that students get during these events that driving is no joke,” Kozakiewicz said.
PEF members lead the way
As part of the GTSC Traffic Safety Office, Kozakiewicz said her department’s focus is on the behavioral side of traffic safety and involves a lot of outreach and coordination with groups throughout the state.
“We give agencies and organizations at a local level help and assistance with their own traffic safety programs, and we funnel federal funding through a competitive grant process down to the local agencies,” she said. “We integrate state level initiates into local programming. It’s a very dynamic role that we take statewide.
“So many PEF members are involved in traffic safety,” Kozakiewicz said. “Graphic artists, the communications office, who write PR and do research. We have four highway safety program representatives, and each rep has a wide swath of counties that they oversee. We work with program analysts who assist with contracts, budget, and program areas, such as impairment. There are program managers who oversee large programs areas (impairment and occupant protection) and also oversee a few counties. We have our internal auditor who also assists with all our grant claims. What we do is a collaborative, team effort!”
During the last week of April, the DMV and its partners focused on a different aspect of teen driving and safety, including speeding in school zones, seatbelt use, cell use and texting, Operation Safe Stop and underage drinking and impaired driving.
The work is important, Kozakiewicz said, and takes dedication and skill.
“It’s a fascinating job,” she said. “You have to love this and be committed to saving lives, because that’s what it comes down to.”
Teen driver resources
The GTSC offers additional resources for educators, coaches, and school resource officers. Younger drivers can see Younger Driver resources at DMV.