How one community keeps its teens safe on the road
Driving Home the "Safe Talk"
Nestled in the Wabash River valley of southeastern Illinois, right along the Indiana state border, lies the small town of Mt. Carmel. A community of approximately 7,300 people, it looks like your typical, picturesque Midwestern town.
What truly makes this town unique is how its high school students and teachers rally together with the community to ensure every driver is as safe as possible on the road.
Mt. Carmel High School first participated in Celebrate My Drive (CMD), a State Farm teen driver safety program in 2013. Since then, the high school has won $225,000 in grant dollars to assist with safe driving initiatives and school improvements.
The unified force and CMD success is amazing for a town the size of Mt. Carmel. But to see the true impact of these efforts, one only has to meet one local family.
“Mt Carmel is a very close community, people care about each other. We are very quick to unite when it’s about our kids,” shared Principal Pat Cheesman. “That was true fifteen years ago when Jason lost his life, and it is still true today. Our passion for our kids drives our teen safe driving efforts at the high school.”
June 25, 2001: a day they would never forget
It was a normal summer day at the Ile house. Mom (Cathy), Dad (Curt) and their three sons, Jason, Steven and Michael were going about their day. Cathy fried a chicken and baked a coconut cream pie for dinner, some of Jason’s favorites.
Cathy just got home after running errands and her senses told her something was wrong. Where was Jason? He was baling hay earlier, but should be home by now, she thought.
The phone rings. It’s the local hospital and they tell her come quickly, Jason and Steven were in a car crash. She couldn’t believe it, two of her boys in the same crash!
Cathy and Curt rushed to the hospital. They learned Jason was in a car with three friends (and football teammates). The foursome were driving to town for a bite to eat after bailing hay. On the return trip, the driver accelerated the car to jump a railroad track; an act of reckless driving known as “hilltopping.”
When the car met the gravel road, the driver lost control and sideswiped a concrete bridge abutment. The impact split the car behind the driver’s seat where Jason was seated.
Jason wore his seatbelt, but sustained 21 internal injuries and died. Cathy asked about Steven, only to learn it was a different Steven and not her son.
There was a brief second of relief, but the loss of Jason hit the family hard. Earlier that week, Jason sprained his ankle and didn’t feel up to baling hay. Cathy told him to stay home to rest. But his dad told him to toughen up and go - something he would second-guess forever.
Jason’s lasting impact
Jason was part of a very close class at Mt. Carmel High School. Principal Pat Cheesman’s son was actually part of Jason’s class. With a small school, students are usually close, but this particular class was different.
Pat says the community has never forgotten Jason, and their love for him helps drive their efforts today.
State Farm agent Dan Schonert’s daughter was a classmate and close friend of Jason’s. To this day, every time the agent thinks about the moment they heard about the wreck, he gets emotional.
“We are a small town where you get to know most of the kids as they grow up with your own kids. They become like extended family. We all hurt deeply when one is hurt or loses their life,” Dan shared.
It was difficult but the family honored Jason’s wish to be an organ donor. Because of their brave, selfless decision, an eight year old boy and 10 month old boy received organs that would allow them to live and lead normal lives.
Jason’s death prompted Cathy and Curt to work with legislators to pass (HB4006) a new law which made the crash a felony. Under HB4006, if a person drives a vehicle and uses an incline in a roadway, such as a railroad crossing, bridge approach, or hill, to cause the vehicle to become airborne, the driver commits reckless homicide if he or she unintentionally kills an individual while “hilltopping.”
Moving forward through the pain
When the school and the community got involved with CMD, the family saw it as a chance to get involved too.They shared their story, hoping to prevent other families from experiencing what they did.
Steven, who took his brother’s death very hard, opened up and gave radio interviews about his brother’s fatal crash. Steven also started the Jason Ile Memorial Golf Scramble. The annual event raises money for a scholarship fund that awards $1,000 to graduating seniors with clean driving records.
Today, Mt. Carmel High School continues their push to educate drivers, young and old, about staying safe on the road. As prom and graduation season nears, the school is gearing up efforts to promote safe driving during these major celebrations in a teen’s life.
Safety tips are periodically shown on flat screen monitors throughout the school, as well as emailed directly to student. Students have created billboard messages, public service video announcements, and will soon have a new driving simulator to help new teen drivers.
The community has continued to join in. Schonert and another State Farm Agent, Ken Saxe, participate in many of the school’s activities. Local law enforcement have safety checks around the school to make sure everyone is being safe.
“Dan and I will do whatever we can to promote teen driving safety, to keep our kids safe and our community strong,” Ken said.
The end of the school year is a celebratory time for high school students with proms and graduations. With automobile crashes still the leading cause of death for teens, State Farm wants to help teens and their parents Celebrate Safe, Drive Safe with these tips:
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