Teens put their driving to the test during safety competition

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Samantha DiGuglielmo figured she was a "pretty good" driver so she decided to enter the 2014 Allegheny County Teen Safe Driving Competition along with 29 other local high school students.

And, as she breezed through the driving skills part of the contest, she made her way through a serpentine path created by traffic cones, parallel parked and drove through a narrow lane lined on each side with tennis balls and continued to think her chances of winning were good.

But then she looked in her rearview mirror and the sight wasn't pretty.

"I saw the tennis balls bouncing away," said Samantha, 17, a senior at Shaler Area High School. "I guess I thought it would be easier."

Those sentiments were shared by other teens as they performed the driving skills test, took a written exam and participated in a perceptual test in hopes of winning some of the cash prizes offered.

The competition was held at Pittsburgh Technical Institute in Oakdale and sponsored by PennDOT, the Allstate Foundation, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and the Allegheny County Safe Driving Committee.

To enter the competition, students had to have clean driving records, and most belonged to student council, Students Against Drunk Driving or other leadership groups. The participating high schools were: Baldwin, Bethel Park, Chartiers Valley, Cornell, Keystone Oaks, Moon Area, North Allegheny, Northgate, Shaler Area and West Allegheny.

There were judges at each station watching to see if students hit curbs or cones and measuring their distances from the lines and curbs whenever they stopped.

Taylor Duchon, 18, a senior at Baldwin High School was the first to volunteer for the driving course.

She impressed judges as she sailed through the tennis ball lines without hitting any. But she had to back up once during her drive through the serpentine in order to avoid hitting a cone. It was a strategic move, since backing up cost her fewer points than hitting.

"Overall, I think I did OK," Taylor said.

As part of the driving skills competition, there was a safety check quiz on a parked SUV supervised by state Trooper Robin Mungo. To get points in that section, students needed to identify safety hazards such as the fact that a screwdriver was lying between the windshield wipers, a can was near the pedals of the car and the hood was not secured.

The written exam was much like the one teens take to get their driving permit, but longer. In the perceptual test, students were shown slides of 15 traffic scenes for 10 seconds and then asked to answer three questions about details in the scenes after they were taken down.

Most of the students said this test was the most difficult.

"For every mile you go you have to make 20 complex driving decisions," said Terri Rae Anthony, AAA safety adviser, who administered the test. "This is all about scanning the roads and seeing what you are missing."

Jacob Murphy, 18, a senior at Bethel Park High School, said he was surprised at all of the details he missed in the slides as he observed them.

Despite his negative self-assessment, Jacob had the highest score among the 30 students on the perception test.

That earned him an emergency road kit. But more importantly, the test, "taught me to be more alert when driving," he said.

There were cash prizes for the three overall top performers. They were: first place, Samantha McCoy of North Allegheny High School, who won $1,000; second place, Ryan McCay of Keystone Oaks High School, $500; and third place Amanda Mazzanni of Chartiers Valley High School, $250.

Samantha and Ryan qualify to compete at the state competition in May in Camp Hill.

In addition, Katelyn Garland of West Allegheny High School won a AAA membership for taking first place in the driving range competition and Julia Hartigan of North Allegheny won safety items for first place in the written test.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com.

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