STARKVILLE, Miss.--Before the Mississippi American Legion Boys State concluded its week-long program at Mississippi State University Saturday [May 31], some 384 Boys State delegates listened to a frank presentation from a 16-year veteran trooper who has seen many fatalities as the result of distracted or impaired driving.
Lt. Johnny Poulos, who was appointed state director of public affairs for the Mississippi Highway Patrol in 2010, told the high school boys who came from all over the state that they must do everything in their power to shield themselves from harm when on the road.
"You're leaders. When you go back to school, I need you to put in place everything that you've learned this week. You can enjoy life, but you've got to make good decisions," said the National Traffic Safety Institute-certified defensive driving instructor.
Mississippi consistently ranks in the Top 5 in the nation for teenage driving fatalities.
"Since January, we have lost 28 teenagers in car crashes," said Poulos, who also is a critical incident debriefer and field training officer for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.
"The number one reason why teenagers in Mississippi are losing their lives in car crashes is because they're not wearing their seat belts. Our seat belt usage is coming down," he said.
"What a lot of people don't realize is this: In a high-speed rollover…when you are ejected 30 to 40 feet in the air out of a vehicle going 70 to 80 miles per hour and you come back down and hit your head and your back on the asphalt, you're going to die," he told the boys. "The human body can take a little bit of trauma, but it cannot take that type."
In emphasizing the need for every passenger in a vehicle to be buckled up, Trooper Poulos explained that "even if you have your seat belt on in a vehicle, you are not safe if one person in that car is not belted in."
"If you're traveling in a vehicle that is going 70 miles an hour and the car comes to a stop, your body is still traveling 70 miles per hour. If you're not belted in, your body comes into contact with everything and everyone inside that vehicle, and you're probably going to be ejected."
"I'm asking you to help me make people think when it comes to putting their seat belts on," he said to the boys. "Their lives--and yours--depend on it."
Throughout his presentation titled "Surviving on the Roadway to Success," Poulos proved his points with videos that demonstrated the devastation that can occur in just seconds during an accident.
He empowered the Boys State attendees to "step up and be leaders" when addressing the issue of drinking and driving.
"When you're at a party and there's alcohol, this is what I need from you: Don't take the position where you think that it's not your business to get involved with your friend or someone else who's had too much to drink," he said.
"I promise you: having to go knock on somebody's door to tell them that their family member's not coming home is a lot harder. There's no training that helps you with a death notification."
Delegates--and others--have to determine for themselves whether sending a text message is worth taking their life or that of someone else, Poulos emphasized.
"Death is not partial. It's not just teenagers that are doing the texting and driving. We're all guilty of it," he said. "If a text is that important to you, pull to the side of the road to look at it," he said.
Lastly, Poulos showed and explained the significance behind what he refers to as "The Last Key."
"This is the last key that any of us ever use. It goes in, rotates and locks the lock on your coffin," he told the boys. "We had to order another key because the head of this one was worn out. It's supposed to be shaped like an octagon, but it's almost round. That's how many coffins this thing has locked."
The key, he explained, serves as a continual reminder of reality.
"It's not a matter of whether you're going to use it; it's a matter of when. I need you to use this when you're 90 or 100 years old," Poulos said.
"Your mission is to accomplish everything you want to accomplish in life. Don't let somebody take that away from you."
MSU will serve through 2015 as host campus for Mississippi American Legion Boys State.
Visit www.facebook.com/msstate to see photos taken throughout the week at 2014 MS Boys State.
More about MS Boys State may be viewed on www.msboysstate.com, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mississippi-American-Legion-Boys-State/125360164145801 and Twitter @MS_Boysstate.
Information about Mississippi State University is available at www.msstate.edu.