BRISTOL, Tenn. -

A partnership between the trauma team at Bristol Regional Medical Center and a group of altruistic students has empowered Sullivan East High School to take top honors in a statewide competition to increase seat belt usage among teenagers.

Organized by the Tennessee Department of Health, the "Battle of the Belt" challenged 11 high schools across the state to devise a plan to raise seat belt compliance among students.

Sullivan East's Health Occupations Students of America organization developed a robust public awareness campaign, which boosted seat belt usage on the school campus from 62 percent to 96.6 percent in eight months.

The improvement in usage, as well as the educational materials the students created, brought them top honors among participating high schools. "We were in sad shape at our initial unannounced seat belt check back in September," said Teresa Cassell, the faculty sponsor of HOSA. "We were quite shocked to find the majority of unbelted people were passengers in student-driven cars. Our HOSA students targeted the messages they presented around that fact. They wanted to encourage drivers to make sure everyone in the car is buckled up before putting the car in drive."

Students used posters, cheers, pep rallies, signs and a video to get the message across. The 90-second video portrays a mock car accident where two unbelted passengers were either killed or seriously injured. The driver of the vehicle, who was wearing a seat belt, walked away unscathed.

"When I polled the student body about which part of the campaign they remember most, nearly everyone said the video was the most impactful," Cassell said. "I think they really got the message that the driver has to be responsible for everyone in the vehicle."

Members of Bristol Regional's trauma team worked with the Sullivan East students to make the campaign a success. For example, Rob Rutherford, a trauma nurse, filmed the student video in which an injured passenger was flown from the staged accident scene on WellmontOne Air Transport. Two other Bristol Regional co-workers, Eric Martin, audio/video operations specialist, and Ron Carrier, conferencing services manager, edited the video.
Sullivan County Emergency Management Services, the Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency, Bluff City Volunteer Fire Department and the Sullivan County Coroner's Office also participated in the project. "Tennessee ranks higher than any other state for the number of teen deaths in traffic crashes," said Sherry Love, Bristol Regional's clinical manager of trauma services. "That's why it's so important to educate young people about the importance of wearing a seat belt. It's ultimately a choice, but it's a choice that can mean the difference between life and death."

"The students at Sullivan East really committed to this project and held each other accountable," Love said. "They should be commended for a job well done."

To celebrate the school's achievement, representatives of the Bristol Regional trauma department and WellmontOne presented a trophy to the winning Sullivan East students during a ceremony on Monday, May 13.