Across Tennessee the backseat banter of children in thousands of vehicles is being prefaced by the sound of a seatbelt locking into place. The click of metal on metal complements the turn of the engine, the sound of the radio, and the shifting of gears.
The sound is a simple one. A nylon strap unwinding as it emerges from the seat back. The defiant snap of the latch into its receptor. So simple that it might be a subconscious recognition for many parents. Yet it is a sound that represents a habit that is saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year throughout the Volunteer State.
In seven years, the Ollie Otter program has grown from the seed of an idea for child passenger safety to a statewide program that has reached all 95 counties. The Ollie Otter campaign is one of the reasons Kendell Poole, director of the Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety Office, praises Tennessee as being “leaps and bounds” beyond the rest of the nation with regard to highway safety.
This week Ollie Otter celebrated a milestone of having delivered more than 500,000 high-fives to children across Tennessee in the name of safe riding. Since 2006, Ollie has been advocating the use of seat belts and booster seats by young passengers. He and his team have trekked to more than 1,700 elementary schools, teaching students about the importance of seat belts and collecting pledges to buckle up.
“This has been a tremendous day,” said Carol Coleman, chair of the Ollie Otter Child Safety Foundation. “It absolutely has touched my heart that we have now had 500,000 children impacted by Ollie.
“It makes me very proud to know that we are making a difference. We are saving children’s lives. My hope for the future is that Ollie will be in every state, and that more children will hear Ollie’s message to buckle up and be safe, and relay it to their parents. Something I’m interested in is everyone wearing their seat belts.”
In honor of the program’s continued success, Gov. Bill Haslam hosted a reception for Ollie Otter at the capitol building. Members of the team joined representatives and students from local school districts, their parents, and Tennessee Highway Patrol officers to take pictures and high-five Haslam in honor of Ollie’s accomplishments.
The results of Ollie Otter’s hard work are obvious. As of 2012, 32 Tennessee counties have logged data stating that restraint use is greater than 97 percent when children are involved in crashes. Eight counties – Bledsoe, Pickett, Clay, Moore, Lewis, Wayne, Decatur and Lake – boast 100 percent statistics on child restraint use during crashes. This is a staggering increase from the mere nine counties that had greater than 97 percent restraint use in 2007. The only change during this time period was the inception of the Ollie Otter program.
“You never know how many kids have been saved by going to a safety program like this,” said Col. Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. “They might not have gotten a booster seat, they might not have buckled up, or their parents might not have been educated on the subject.
“But Tennessee is one of the leaders in the use of child restraint devices. It always has been, and we’ve always been a safety leader in this area,” he said. “The Ollie Otter program is just a great tool that we use in the schools, and our safety education people and Julie Brewer do a great job in presenting it to the public. We’re just thrilled to be a part of it.”
Brewer has managed the Ollie Otter program from the Business Media Center at Tennessee Tech University for seven years.
The Ollie Otter program is focused on spreading knowledge on child passenger safety across the country and has been implemented in Mississippi, Alaska and Arizona. Ultimately, the goal is to have an Ollie Otter program in all 50 states, making Ollie a national mascot for child passenger safety.
“The Ollie Otter program has been going on for my entire tenure, so it has been a real pleasure to watch it grow and to know that the Business Media Center is having such an impact on the lives of children in this state,” said James Jordan-Wagner, dean of the TTU College of Business.
“This just represents the first step in the Business Media Center and the College of Business being a part of traffic safety in the state,” Jordan-Wagner said. “Hopefully not only can we build on this within the state, but also in the region and even the entire nation.
“We would like to thank the Tennessee Road Builders Association, the state police, the Ollie Otter Foundation, and everyone who has been a part of this great project. The past has been rewarding, the present is exciting and the future is bright.”
Ollie’s success has spurred other projects through the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, including a campaign for teen driver safety that launched this week. Reduce TN Crashes will strive to get high schools across the state involved in activities to reduce the number of “teen” crashes, affecting ages 15-24, in each county.