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Serious message, prizes convince teens safe driving is 'Cool'
Leroy High School sophmore Sarah Hintz,16, center, receives a hug from her mother Kim Hintz, right, after winning the 2008 Mitsubishi Eclipse while Normal Community High School's annual Operation Cool Wednesday night (5/07/08). (Pantagraph/B Mosher)

NORMAL - Once an active high school student, Danny Hicks of Springfield now relies on a catheter, a wheelchair and other technology to get through the day.

His life changed 18 years ago, when he was riding in a car driven by a fellow teenager who had been drinking.

The crash almost killed him, he said, showing slides of the mangled wreckage to about 500 to 600 people Wednesday night during Operation Cool at Normal Community High School.

"I love what I do. Thank God I am able to do this," he said of his role telling teenagers about the importance of safe driving.

Operation Cool, mixes fun, especially the awarding of a new car and 124 other prizes to safe teen drivers, with the lifesaving message of responsibility behind the wheel.

In its 11th year, the program is credited with saving 130 lives of students, said Mitsubishi Motors North America spokeswoman Carol Redfern Ambler. MMNA donated a 2008 Eclipse for the event.

Hicks is community affairs specialist with the Think First Head & Spinal Cord Injury Prevention Program at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

Hicks spends his time talking to students about how choices can have lifelong consequences.

He showed slides of his wheelchair ramp, how he uses a grabbing tool to reach things and other ways he manages. There were slides of him as an active high schools student and then in a hospital bed with a feeding tube.

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He was in a coma for 28 days, he said, adding the experience was devastating for their families and changed their lives.

The driver survived with 50 stitches, he said.

The Operation Cool crowd was drawn from McLean, Livingston and DeWitt counties, organizers said. The students had signed a contract promising to wear seat belts, to stay in school and to avoid drugs and alcohol.

Sarah Hintz, 16, a LeRoy High School student, was only the second of the 20 finalists to try a key in the Eclipse - and it worked. Finalists for the car were drawn at random.

"I'm shocked - in disbelief," said Hintz, who has been driving a 2001 Grand Am.

"Her younger sister always wanted an Eclipse," said Kim Hintz, Sarah's mother. The sister, Stephanie, 14, probably will get the Grand Am.

Warnings about responsible behavior went beyond what students agreed to in the contract. WBNQ's Susan Saunders, who was master of ceremonies, noted as computers and related electronic prizes were given that "if it's on the Internet, it's there forever, so be careful what you put on there."

Also, Lexington High School received the $100 Spirit Award for the most enthusiastic response during the awarding of prizes.

Normal Community West High School was awarded $100 for most improved seat belt use, which increased 16.2 percent, and Woodland High School, Streator, and Normal Community High School split $100 because each had 96 percent seat belt use.

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