Local teens got to experience first-hand the dangers of distracted driving. About 30 teenagers, and their parents, took part in a community-based event at Casey's Amusement Park May 30.

The 9th annual event was hosted by the Douglas County Safe Communities Coalition and several community partners.

While taking a spin in one of Casey's go-carts, the teen drivers were sending and receiving text messages with their parents with the goal of helping them to understand the dangers of distracted driving. Instead of being out on the road, the teens were in a safe, controlled environment.

In addition to the on-track distracted driving experience, stations were set up with information regarding the responsibilities of driving, teen driving laws, driving risks and vehicle insurance. The participants also learned how one crash could impact their life forever.

A guest speaker, Katie DeGier of Nelson, shared how her family was impacted by a distracted driver. She told the story of how her dad, Dave Hawkinson, had been training on his bike for an Ironman competition when he was struck and killed almost five years ago by a 26-year-old man who had been texting while driving.

Beneficial event

Natalie Goodwin of Alexandria, whose 14-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, took part in the event called it "very well done" and said it benefited both teens and parents. Her daughter will turn 15 in October and start driver's training in November.

For the teen participants, Goodwin said they learned how quickly things can go wrong when behind the wheel and how one little distraction can have devastating effects for them, their families and others.

"It opened Mackenzie's eyes to the fact that although she is a savvy and fast texter, she realized that driving is hard enough and that texting has no place being done behind the wheel," said Goodwin.

For the parents, Goodwin believes it was beneficial, as well, and a good chance to take a look at their own driving behaviors.

"I think a lot of us have some bad habits that we can look at and choose to change our behavior for the safety of ourselves and for others," she said. "And to set a good example for our kids so they hopefully never get into those same bad habits in the first place."

Goodwin said DeGier's message hit home with all who attended.

"Bad things can happen quickly to any of us," Goodwin said. "It's so simple to do our part and not drive distracted so that it can prevent such an unnecessary tragedy."

Toward Zero Deaths

The event is linked to the state's core traffic safety initiative, Toward Zero Deaths. The primary vision of the TZD program is to sculpt a safe driving culture in Minnesota with buy-in from motorists, according to Crystal Hoepner with the Douglas County Safe Communities Coalition.

Hoepner said at the end of the event, the teens each received a certificate of completion and that this event fulfills the parent awareness class teens need to have in order to obtain their instruction permit and provisional driver's license.

Hoepner noted that although the event was hosted by Douglas County Safe Communities Coalition, it was funded by Zimny Insurance and Casey's Amusement Park. The community partners included the following: Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Alexandria Police Department, Osakis Police Department, North Memorial Ambulance, Alomere Health, Horizon Public Health, City of Alexandria, Central Lakes Driving School, Freedom First Riders and United Fire Group.