When most people think of Girl Scouts, they tend to picture little girls selling cookies in front of the local store or singing in a camp sing-along.
It’s unlikely they envision a young woman working on a project to improve traffic safety.
But that’s exactly what Wesley Chapel High School student Samantha Politano is doing.
She’s launched a three-year project aimed at making life safer for the students who attend Wesley Chapel High School, Thomas Weightman Middle School and Wesley Chapel Elementary School.
She’s not only interested in making life safer for students. She wants to improve the conditions for all drivers — parents dropping off and picking up their kids, bus drivers making their rounds, and faculty members and students who drive to school.
In addition to making Wells Road safer, she’s also aiming to spread the message of safe driving habits.
She hopes her efforts will encourage drivers to buckle up and put away their cellphones, which will reduce their chance or being injured or having an accident.
She also thinks it would be neat to give Wells Road a second, honorary name — Wildcat Way — to pay tribute to the mascot for the elementary, middle and high schools.
Politano is tackling the traffic safety issue on a number of fronts and has enlisted the aid of Jeff Novotny, former president of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce.
Novotny is widely known in business circles around Wesley Chapel, but that’s not why Politano asked him. She wanted his help because he’s married to her third-grade teacher, Amanda, who teaches at Wesley Chapel Elementary.
“Mrs. Novotny was one of the most influential teachers, ever,” Politano said.
So, why would a teenager take on an issue like traffic safety?
In Politano’s case, it’s because she’s striving to attain a Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can achieve.
The distinction is based on the completion of a project that focuses on making a difference.
Politano said her decision to work on traffic issues was partly inspired by a friend of hers who was injured when a car backed into her in the parking lot.
She said she also heard about a freshman who was struck by a vehicle on Wells Road.
It’s not hard to see that Wells Road has traffic issues during student arrival and departure times.
On one recent afternoon, parents arrived at least 20 minutes before school got out, parking their cars on the edges on both sides of Wells Road.
With cars flanking both sides of the road, passing traffic — including school buses — had to drive close to the middle of the road, and in some cases over the centerline.
Parents also pulled into a parking lot at Wesley Chapel High to wait for their children, reminiscent of the staging area of the cellphone parking lot at Tampa International Airport.
Politano plans to continue her efforts by talking to various advisory groups and elected officials, to draw attention to the problem. She also has been circulating a petition that people can sign on paper or electronically.
One possible solution, Novotny said, would be to have a continuous turn lane down Wells Road, which would give vehicles a place to wait, so other cars could get by.
“That (continuous turn lane) creates enough separation between the west and eastbound vehicles so that they’re not right on top of each other. It gives a little space for people to see what’s happening,” Novotny said.
Besides working on that issue, Politano has already addressed a site-distance problem at the intersection of Wells and Boyette roads.
There was overgrown vegetation near the intersection, making it difficult for drivers to see, she explained. She notified the county, and they responded swiftly to address the problem, she said.
“It was very quick. I was very surprised, pleasantly surprised,” Politano said.
The county already is planning another safety improvement, Novotny said. It is scheduled to install a traffic light at Boyette and Wells roads in 2016.
Besides making conditions safer on the road, Politano has encouraged safer driver behavior.
She used Wesley Chapel High School’s public address system to remind students of the importance of buckling up and not texting while driving.
She used a message that got the students’ attention. She told them it would cost $140 for a ticket, if they weren’t wearing a seat belt or were caught texting while driving.
Politano also did a study to see if her message had any effect.
Before she made the announcement, she counted the cars in the parking lot and observed how many drivers were wearing their seat belts. By her count, it was around 15 percent.
She did the same count after her announcement, and this time about 50 percent were buckled up.
She said she plans to do another observation, to see if her message stuck.
In another effort to raise awareness, she created a sign on a fence between the high school and elementary school.
“Buckle Up!” it exclaims.
Politano realizes she has ambitious goals, but noted she doesn’t have to achieve a three-lane road or modify other drivers’ behavior to qualify for the Girl Scout Gold Award. She merely has to make her best efforts and document them.
She said she’s grateful for Novotny’s help on the project.
“Mr. Novotny has helped immensely, immensely, immensely with this.”
Politano’s mom, Felicia, recalled when her daughter told her what she planned to do for her Gold Award project.
The teenager said: “I’m going to widen Wells Road.”
Her mom responded: “Why don’t you find something easier than that to do.”
While she doesn’t have to get the road widened, Politano does hope for that result.
“The community needs it,” Politano said.
Published March 18, 2015