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NORTH LOGAN — A Utah teacher who lost his son in a car crash is sharing a message of safety with his students.
"You just can't explain that loss, that void that's there when you lose a child," said Chad Hawkes, a fifth grade teacher at North Park Elementary School. "If I can help another family avoid that kind of feeling, I'm going to do it."
His son, Jake, died in a car accident in 2009 — he was texting while driving and not wearing a seat belt. Hawkes initially was reluctant to share the story, but he changed his mind and discovered just how important the message could be.
"How many families, especially in the state of Utah, could benefit from that?" he said. Now Hawkes works with the students with the whole community in mind.
Jake Hawkes grew up in a North Logan community. He was 19 when he died and was a talented soccer player with close friends.
"You could know him for five minutes, and feel like he was a friend forever," Chad Hawkes said.
His son planned to go elk hunting the next day when he headed out on Highway 89, north of Logan, Aug. 26, 2009.
Chad Hawkes said his son was texting as he approached a North Logan intersection. By the time Jake Hawkes looked up, the light was red. He swerved to avoid rear-ending one car, clipped another car and then rolled his truck. He was ejected from the vehicle because he wasn't buckled in.
"It was something that was preventable," Chad Hawkes said. "I think that if he would've had his seat belt on, when his truck rolled, the possibility was he would have walked away from there."
You just can't explain that loss, that void that's there when you lose a child. If I can help another family avoid that kind of feeling, I'm going to do it.
Chad Hawkes didn't want his son to become a poster child for somebody who had made a mistake or done something wrong. But as he thought about the way Jake forged his friendships, he changed his mind.
"If there was one thing I could do as a parent, if there was one thing I could do as an educator, that would sway somebody, or help somebody make a decision when they got in their vehicle in the morning, I'd do it," Chad Hawkes said.
So he started a Click-it Club for the 5th graders at the school where he teaches. The students pledge to buckle up and share the message with their friends and families.
"If we pass it on to other people, they'll pass it on to more and more and more and multiply to make everyone buckle up," said Bryson Newswander, a fifth grader and member of the planning committee for the Click-it Club.
The club had an essay contest and remind their loved ones to "click-it" every time they get into a car.
"Sometimes my mom would say, 'We're just going two or three miles, I don't think we need to buckle up.'" Breckin Lamb, another fifth grader at the school. "But I would buckle up anyway because I just wanted to be safe."
The students also started a year-long project to see if their families were getting the message about seat belts. At the start of the school year, they surveyed parents dropping off students: 74 percent wore seat belts. Today, 86 percent wear seat belts — a 12 percent increase.
State statistics show 82 percent of Utahns wear seat belts regularly, so the students were able to urge their parents to go from below average seat belt compliance to well over average.
"More people have been remembering to buckle up before they go on a drive, no matter how long or short it is," said Reagan Lyman, who is also on the planning committee.
Last year, 67 Utahns who weren't wearing seat belts died in car crashes — nearly one-third of Utah's 215 highway fatalities in 2012.
"Wow, it saves like thousands of lives, and wow it's really important," said Alan Poulsen.
Chad Hawkes pointed out the kids may be the best messengers. Research by Zero Fatalities confirms that adults are most likely to buckle up if a loved one asks them to.
"They are there to remind us all the time," he said.