by Joyce Tremel
Imagine for a minute that you are seventeen years old. It is 6:45 a.m. and you are driving to the Shaler Area High School. Your favorite CD is playing and you’re tapping your fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music when all of a sudden you hear a siren behind you. You look in your rear view mirror and see a police officer on his motorcycle, his lights flashing, motioning you to pull over. Panic sets in, your gut tightening up like someone squeezing it with a rubber band. Your thoughts flash as quickly as the lights on the motorcycle, wondering what you did wrong. You thought you were obeying all the traffic laws. Why is he pulling you over?
You pull your car over to the side of the road, watching while the officer gets off his bike and heads toward your car. Your mouth goes dry when you see the size of the officer. He’s over six feet tall and muscular, and he looks mean! You swallow hard and try to remember how to breathe. When you look up, he’s at your window with a big, friendly smile on his face. You squeak out a hello.
"Hey, man, I just wanted to congratulate you on following all the traffic safety laws!” he says in his booming voice. He briefly explains that he’s started a program that rewards drivers for following the traffic laws. Relieved, you are soon back on your way to school.
The above scenario is fiction. Although many police officers might like to hand out good news on occasion instead of citations, in Pennsylvania a driver needs to violate one of the motor vehicle laws for a traffic stop. It is doubtful that the above driver would complain, but Officer Carl Funtal of the Township of Shaler Police Department doesn’t take any chances. Instead he notes the registration number on the plate to find the identity of the good driver.
In Shaler Township, a community of thirty-one thousand residents located north of the City of Pittsburgh, rewarding good drivers is part of the Township of Shaler Police Department’s Tickets & Stuff program. Several years ago, due to an increase in the number of teen driving fatalities in the northern suburbs, Chief Jeffrey Gally asked Officer Carl Funtal of the Traffic Division if he could come up with a program to educate young drivers.
Initiated during the 2000-2001 school year, Tickets & Stuff appears to be working. The program is unique in that not only are violators given citations, but good drivers are rewarded. Funtal likes the idea of the positive reinforcement this gives the kids. “Too often the focus is on the bad kids,” he said. “We wanted to do something for the kids who do the right things.” The good drivers are identified at school, where they are notified and given a chance to be in a drawing held at the end of the school year. Prizes such as restaurant gift certificates, CDs, and car stereos are given away. Funtal receives donations from many of the area businesses and civic organizations.
There is some good news for the violators, too. Any teenage driver given a traffic citation can plead their case before District Justice Robert Dzvonick, who may dismiss the citation, provided the violator attend Funtal’s traffic camp, which is the main part of the program. The traffic camp is held on a Saturday in May, but it has become increasingly popular and might be held twice a year in the future. Word of mouth has spread so much that parents are calling to sign up their teens even if they haven’t been cited.
The Tickets & Stuff traffic camp is an all-day interactive event held at the Shaler Area High School. The kids are given breakfast and a fast-food lunch. The first part of the camp features guest speakers. In the past, Magistrate Bob Dzvonick discussed criminal aspects of the law, and an insurance agent from State Farm Insurance informed the students about what tickets and accidents can do to one’s insurance rates. An attorney discussed the civil aspects and liabilities and what could happen if they or their parents are sued, which most of the teens had never even considered. One of the speakers who had a strong impact on the students was a young accident victim who will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His talk seemed to reinforce the idea that they (the teens) are not invincible, and that it could happen to them, too. Another speaker who brought tears to the eyes of many students was the father of a teenage girl who was killed in a motor vehicle accident. Some of these speakers return every year.
In the next part of the camp, the students participate in interactive skits, then are shown a slide show featuring music with slides of serious accidents. Funtal hopes that there is a subliminal message in the slide show; that whenever a student hears the song on the radio or on a CD, they’ll picture the image on the slide.
After lunch, everyone moves to the parking lot where Funtal, who is an accident reconstructionist, demonstrates the Physics aspects of accidents. The students learn to convert speeds to velocity, or miles-per-hour to feet-per-second. They also learn about perception and reaction, and the fact that it takes awhile for their brains to give them the message to stop. This is often the students’ favorite part of the camp, especially when Funtal skids the police car and they get the chance to measure skid marks.
After all the fun is a test, then each student receives a certificate of completion. The kids also get to fill out an evaluation form and they don’t have to sign their names. So far, all of the evaluations have been positive and most of the students say the class made them aware of things they had never thought about before. They all state that they’ll drive more carefully, which seems to be holding true. Very few students are repeat offenders after participating in the traffic camp.
Word of the Tickets & Stuff program is spreading beyond the Pittsburgh area. Funtal was invited by the Highway Safety Administration to speak about the program. He also did a presentation for PAUD--Pennsylvanians Against Underage Drinking.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about the program can contact Officer Carl Funtal at the Township of Shaler Police Department.