Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 25 March 2011 00:00
On Jan. 19, 2008, 16-year-old Brian Assa died in a car accident on Woodbury Road in Plainview. After his son’s death, Jerry Assa started the Think First Foundation, Inc. to talk to teens about taking their safety seriously, not only for their own sake, but for all those who care about them as well. However, Assa is hopeful that pending legislation may see to it that fewer teens share his son’s fate; so much so, that he said that he ended all of his talks on a recent trip to Washington D.C. with the same comment: “If this had been passed three years ago, I wouldn’t need to have the Think First Foundation today, because my son would still be alive.”
The Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection (STANDUP) Act, introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Tim Bishop, would set national standards for states to implement Graduated Drivers License (GDL) programs to better prepare teens for the responsibility of driving. New York, which passed several new driving laws in February of 2010, already complies with most of these proposed standards, save one under the STANDUP Act, the state would need to change the current regulations to require that an unrestricted license can only be acquired at age 18. Right now, in New York that license can be acquired at age 17 with a completed drivers education course. For Assa, whose son was a passenger in the car of a 17-year-old driver, leading to the tragic accident that claimed his life, it’s a crucial change.
Getting the Message Across to Teens
The Plainview resident, who works part-time in both advertising and gold buying, had done charity work before; Assa is a former president of the Long Island chapter of the American Liver Foundation, and had also worked with the National Children’s Cancer Society. However, after Brian’s death, he’s devoted himself to talking to teens about safety. While he doesn’t speak exclusively about driving safety (as he also discusses the importance of wearing proper athletic protection, the dangers of unprotected sex and other topics relevant to teenagers), he encourages teens to think before they get in their car, or a friend’s car, and to take driving seriously.
“It’s my passion, it’s his legacy- people think this only happens to a bad kid. But you know what? Young kids think they’re invincible, and make these mistakes often,” says Assa.
Fortunately, thanks to Think First, it seems many local teens have learned that they are not quite as invincible as they may have once thought; Assa says that many teens come up to him after he speaks to thank him, and to let him know that they get the message. The speaker has presented at many local schools including Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK High School, Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School, Cold Spring Harbor High School, Clarke High School in East Meadow, and Seaford High School. In fact, Seaford High School recently contacted Assa to ask for him to make a repeat visit to their school.
In addition to presenting as a part of his Think First Foundation, Assa also speaks in cooperation with the CPC (Community Parent Center) of Bellmore-Merrick’s “Driving in the Safe Lane” program, which brings together a police officer, a physician, and speakers like Assa who have lost a child to discuss driving issues with teens. Assa spoke highly of the program, which strategically targets its workshops to maximize impact - schools can host the program before giving out permits for parking on school property, before the start of driver’s education classes, or right before the senior prom - times when many teens have driving on the brain.
In fact, it was Assa’s affiliation with the CPC that led to his being asked to take part in a Washington D.C. press conference with Gillibrand and Bishop on Tuesday, March 8 introducing the STANDUP Act, and to serve as an advocate for the legislation on Capitol Hill.
Standing Up for Stricter Driving Laws
In a press release, Gillibrand explained her motivation for introducing the STANDUP Act. “I have two young boys at home, and like any parent, their safety and well-being means everything to me,” the senator said. “As parents, we know that the day will come when each of our children will get behind the wheel of a car. As a parent and as a lawmaker, I want to make sure we take every reasonable safety precaution to ensure that our teen drivers are safe and well-prepared for the serious responsibility that comes with getting a license,” said Gillibrand.
“This effort to bring all states into compliance with minimum federal standards for improved teen driving practices is vitally important to every American family and community. There isn’t a state in the nation, including New York, that has dodged the terrible suffering associated with preventable teen deaths in car crashes year in and year out. The STANDUP Act will make roadways safer for future teens, their families, and friends,” added Bishop, who is the author of the legislation in the House.
For Assa, visiting Capitol Hill in support of the STANDUP Act was an exciting experience, especially because in his view, the legislation has no downside. “All it can do is save more lives,” he explained. Washington seems to agree; Assa said that out of all the legislators and aides he spoke to during his several days in Washington, not one had anything negative to say about the STANDUP Act.
It would seem that even teens themselves, whose freedom stands to be curtailed by the legislation, recognize its value. According to a survey conducted by All State Insurance, 74 percent of teens are in favor of a single, comprehensive law that incorporates the key elements of graduated driver’s license programs.
Assa thinks the reason for the high level is teen support is due to the fact that GDL programs can lead to a decrease in the omnipresent peer pressure young people face; instead of being deemed “uncool” for not wanting to take other teens into their car, or engage in other risky behavior for young drivers, teens could point to stricter driving laws as a reason to play it safe.
Of course, peer pressure aside, the numbers alone can be convincing: more than 280 New Yorkers died in car accidents involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers from 2005 to 2009, and more than 46,000 were injured. According to Assa, states that have already implemented GDLs have found that teen death rates from automobile accidents have gone down 40 percent.
While every state has some version of a GDL system, the requirements vary widely from state to state. The STANDUP Act would call on states to establish GDL systems with minimum requirements, including a three-stage licensing process (from learner’s permit to intermediate state to full, non-restricted license), prohibited night driving during intermediate stage, passenger restrictions during learner’s permit and intermediate stage, and prohibited non-emergency use of cell phones and other communication devices during the learner’s permit and intermediate stages. States would have a three-year window to establish this set of minimum requirements, or face losing out on a percentage of their federal highway funding.
Now that he’s back from Washington, Assa is looking to continue speaking at local schools on Long Island. He also hopes to grow the Think First Foundation so he can speak at more venues - whether they’re schools, temples or churches. He also hopes to expand to visiting colleges as well, where first-year students in particular are known for putting themselves in many dangerous situations. Ideally, Assa would like to be able to speak to teens on a full-time basis.
Of course, the issue of safe driving doesn’t only apply to teens; the number of auto accidents on Long Island attests to the fact that this issue is everyone’s concern. Assa feels that parents not only need to be more involved in their children’s driver education, they also need to set a better example for their children with their own driving - and not just before their child starts driver’s education classes.
Still, the main thing on the speaker’s agenda for the time being is to continue sharing the story of what happened to his son, both to honor Brian Assa’s memory and to continue to protect children the same age. “It’s always very emotional for me…it hurts every time I do it, but it’s worth me suffering the pain if I can help one child,” said Assa.