Jason Westerheide shares information on the National Organization for Youth Safety during The American Legion's Spring Meetings on May 3. James V. Carroll

Make NOYS in May

The school year is quickly coming to a close, which signifies proms, graduation parties and summer vacations for many high school students. And while students prepare for these long-awaited events, so too does the National Organization for Youth Safety (NOYS).

NOYS - a non-profit that promotes youth highway traffic safety and advocates for stronger laws to protect teenagers - recently conducted a survey with more than 600 drivers ages 16-20 that revealed 83 percent have talked on the cell phone while driving and 68 percent have texted while doing so. As traffic crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for youth, NOYS focuses on interactive educational tools to encourage safe driving in order to decrease the number of teenage traffic-related deaths and injuries. In doing so, the organization kicks off this summer alongside teenagers with its National Youth Traffic Safety Month (NYTSM), which starts in May and empowers youth to create, lead and implement education projects addressing youth traffic safety.

In effort to shine light on the extraordinary projects students are developing for NYTSM, Jason Westerheide - a sophomore at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a national board of directors youth member for NOYS - spoke to numerous Legionnaires during The American Legion's Spring Meetings on May 3. Afterward, he went into greater detail explaining his enthusiasm for NYTSM.

Q: Why did you get involved with NOYS? A: A few years ago I represented a different organization during an NOYS meeting, and I became attracted to the organization's mission and objectives. Also, I lost my best friend in a traffic accident during my sophomore year in high school. The accident was caused from my friend speeding and talking on his cell phone.

Q: How did the idea for National Youth Traffic Safety Month get underway?A: The campaign was developed four years ago during a NOYS meeting by a group of high school students. The students came together and realized that there is an issue regarding teenagers talking on the cell phone and texting while driving. Thus, NYTSM was launched by the youth for the youth. And in its first three years, the campaign gave more than $220,000 in awards to youth programs in reward for their traffic safety projects. This year, there is more than $150,000 in awards and prizes for NYTSM.

Q: What events take place during the campaign?A: There are many projects such as the 50 Best Projects, where students develop distracted driving prevention projects to share with peers from other high schools. Project ideas include safety belt checks, mock car crashes, speeding and more. The students submit their projects to NOYS, we evaluate them, and then Allstate Foundation awards $1,000 to each of the top 50 projects. (Click here for more information on 50 Best Projects and ideas.)

We also have Act Out Loud, which is our online viral contest using youth-friendly outreach (i.e., Facebook, YouTube, etc.). To enter the contest, students submit a proposal to NOYS on how they will spread awareness on the dangers of distractive driving (i.e., texting and talking on cell phone, eating, applying makeup, changing music, etc.). The top 20 teams selected will actually develop and implement their project. It's the most exciting event we have because it's competitive-based, as each high school team has a Facebook fan page, and they are competing to get the most fans. The prizes include $1,000 and a video camera to all 20 teams, $10,000 for first place, and $5,000 each to the most supportive principal and most supportive adviser.

There will also be three webinars led by our Act Out Loud youth because they have best practices to share. The webinars will be on empowering youth, distracted driving and graduated driver licensing laws.

Lastly, there's Drive to Life where teenagers create a public service announcement (PSA) that addresses traffic safety issues such as seat belts, speedy and aggressive driving, and drowsy driving. The winning PSA will be professionally produced, and the winner will receive a $1,000 scholarship and a trip to New York City to see the PSA developed.

Q: Is NYTSM only for the month of May?A: Summer is the deadliest period for teens so National Youth Traffic Safety Month is from May until August. The kids have a blast with all of the projects, as it's a good environment to be in, and the students like the beauty of peer-to-peer education. Overall, we make youth part of the solution to safer driving.

To view more youth traffic safety projects, visit www.noys.org.