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Serious Talk In Driver's Ed Class

Director Diego Luna arrives at a press conference for the film "Chavez" at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival on April 27, 2007 in New York.
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It used to be that learning to drive meant mastering the clutch or perfecting the art of parallel parking.

But some teenagers getting behind the wheel are getting a lesson in life and death. More and more, states are teaching students in drivers education classes how they can become organ and tissue donors.

"You don't have any use of these things when you die, so why not?" Robin Gary, a drivers education teacher, told a class at Amelia County High School, about 40 miles west of Richmond.

Gary told the sophomores that 11 people die each day waiting for transplants and asked the girls to imagine a loved one who needed an organ. Then, she said, "Imagine you know there was someone out there who could be a donor and wasn't."

The Department of Health and Human Services recently allocated $24.8 million annually in part to establish a national curriculum for school districts that choose to teach about organ donation.

Right now, each state decides whether to include the information, either in drivers' education or other classes. For example, Virginia, Arkansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin require schools to include the topic.

Exactly how much influence the campaigns have is unclear. About 25 percent of drivers nationwide designate organ donation on their licenses, said Dena Reynolds of LifeNet, a Virginia organ procurement agency. In Virginia, the figure is about 28 percent.

In Ohio, roughly 48 percent of drivers overall are signed up to be donors, said Brianna Abbott, the education coordinator for the organ procurement organization Lifeline of Ohio, in Columbus. That number increases to about 55 percent for teenagers who received licenses since July 1, 2002.

Abbott attributes the difference, in part, to mandatory donation information in drivers education classes. The requirement also began in 2002.

"It's also a cultural thing," Abbott said. "Young people are talking about this, and it's not scary. They don't have all the same misconceptions and fears that adults have."

Some donation advocates are hoping for the same kind of trickle-down success that other youth-oriented campaigns have had - teenagers becoming excited about a cause and carrying it home to their parents.

"Like anything else, whether it was litter or seat belts or forest fires or Earth Day, it started with the youth population and they converted their parents," said John Dean, a spokesman for Coalition on Donation, a Richmond nonprofit group that has worked with the federal government to develop the national school standards.

Since Virginia began requiring that organ donation be taught in 2001, Gary said many of her students chose to become donors on their licenses after rejecting the option on their learner's permits.

Heather Poole, one of Gary's students, shrugged and said choosing organ donation was easy.

"You don't need that stuff when you're dead," said Poole, 16.

Gary uses a videotape, worksheets and handouts from LifeNet. The materials not only explain the procedures but also counter myths, such as choosing to be a donor means emergency care will be withheld.

But Gary said often it's a guest speaker who really transforms attitudes.

Susie Diaz of Virginia Beach lost her 19-year-old daughter, Maria, in a car wreck about three years ago. Maria had passionately supported donation, and many of her organs and tissues went to other people. To help herself heal and to honor her daughter's memory, Susie Diaz began speaking to student groups.

She said students often approach her to ask for advice, or just to tell her they support organ donation.

"At first the students are a little giggly, because you're talking about death and they're uncomfortable, but when I start to speak, you can hear a pin drop," Diaz said.

By Adrienne Schwisow