Area youth got up close and personal with the dangers of distracted driving this week.

Around 500 students across the state gathered at the Tulsa Tech-Owasso campus on Tuesday to participate in Oklahoma Family Career and Community Leaders of America’s annual Oklahoma Challenge LEAD Conference (see PHOTO gallery).

The event served to teach students about the growing problem of distracted driving, current laws against texting behind the wheel and ways they can develop a plan to raise awareness and change their behavior.

“We know that teens listen to teens,” Oklahoma Challenge Director Linda Terrell said. “This event is about giving tools to high school students to go back to their schools and communities and share the message of safe driving.”

Throughout the day, attendees filled the hallways of Tulsa Tech’s Conference Center, where they got an opportunity to visit different booths, talk with experts, engage in fun activities and mingle with their peers.

Groups like Safe Kids, Oklahoma Operation Lifesaver, ODOT Workzone Safety, Move Over and SAFE – Seatbelts Are For Everyone – were on hand to provide traffic safety information and connect with students.

“I love how open everybody is … and how knowledge everybody is,” Owasso senior Sarah McGuire said. “They’re giving great pointers about not texting and driving.”

The conference also played host to Teens in the Driver Seat, a peer-to-peer program that focuses on traffic safety and addresses major risks for this age group; and ThinkFast Interactive, an evidence-informed program that uses trivia and teambuilding in a gameshow-type setting to educate young people.

“I feel like we can all make a difference together,” Owasso senior Savannah Wood said, “because just the team activities show how strong we are as a group, and I like that we get to help the community.”

Students ventured outside as well to get a firsthand look at a semi-truck and a crashed motorcycle before going behind the wheel of an all-terrain vehicle with a set of impaired goggles to test their skill of maneuvering around an obstacle course of traffic cones.

Julian Ober and Faith Alavi were among several student leaders from Tulsa Tech who were also impacted by the event.

“I did the drunk driving course, and that was really, really eye-opening,” Ober said. “I learned about a lot of new things, a lot of skills that I’ve actually gotten to put into play today.”

Alavi added, “I’m enjoying working with other people, talking to advisors, getting to interact with other students, being able to educate them more on things that we do here with FCCLA.”

Following the conference, Terrell said she’s confident students walked away with an increased passion and knowledge to reduce impaired crashes, injuries and deaths in their local communities.

“It makes me so filled with hope … these students are going to be our tomorrow,” Terrell said. “Distracted driving is this generation’s drunk driving. It’s so important that they take ownership of driving safely.”

Oklahoma Challenge is offered through a grant from the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office with support from State Farm, the Oklahoma State Medical Association Foundation, the Energize for Safety Coalition, and the Oklahoma National Guard, and is delivered through Educational Alternatives, a nonprofit dedicated to youth empowerment.