‘Highway Survivor’ teaches kids safe driving in work zones

A district of the Missouri Department of Transportation is using the popularity of TV reality series “Survivor” to teach high school juniors and seniors about safe driving in work zones.

With the show’s theme music playing in the background, students stand on a giant canvas highway and answer safety questions posed by road construction and maintenance workers. If they get the answers wrong, instead of swinging from ropes or swimming in alligator infested swamps, the tribal challenges include setting up lane closures, hooking up a NASCAR seatbelt and throwing litter into a giant trash can.

The Missouri DOT’s Northeast District has reached more than 500 students at 18 schools with its “Highway Survivor” program, which began in April 2004. Marisa Brown, community relations manager for the district, says the game is a hit with young drivers. “Interestingly, the one thing they would like is harder questions,” she says. “We have some pretty bright kids.”

But convincing construction workers who feel at home pouring asphalt and operating heavy equipment to stand at intersections of a big piece of cloth sprawled across a gym floor and play a TV-show game with teenagers was another matter. “This is not really their cup of tea,” Brown says. “Most of them were skeptical.”

After participating, however, the workers are eager to help again, Brown says. Many have high-school-age children of their own and ask the district to take “Highway Survivor” to their schools. “They say, ‘Call us again. This is so valuable,'” Brown says.

DOT staff came up with the idea during a brainstorming session in Brown’s office. They were trying to think of a creative way to kick off work zone safety awareness week. “Fear Factor” was the first suggestion after they decided to model a game after a reality show. But Brown wasn’t sure replicating the Madagascar-cockroach-eating-type challenges would be such a good idea. “Survivor” was pitched next, and the group created rules following its format.

First, students break into “tribes” of eight to 10 and choose a tribal leader, who dons an orange hat and safety vest. The tribes then venture to different stations along the highway to answer work zone safety questions, many of which were written by the construction workers who ask them.

Coincidentally, Twila Tanner, a maintenance worker for the Missouri DOT, won second place in the fall 2004 season of “Survivor.” She has returned to her job and travels with the program as a guest celebrity.

“Highway Survivor” recently won a 2005 Roadway Work Zone Safety Awareness Award from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Brown says her goal is to reach every school in the DOT’s Northeast district with the program. “As long as the TV show is popular, it’s going to be popular,” she says.