First-graders at Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia couldn't take their eyes off Otto, the automated talking car, as it wheeled around the cafeteria talking about safety and cracking jokes.
The little car, about 3 feet high with a wide smile on its radiator grille and red and blue lights painted on its roof, wheeled up to pupils to ask questions. The children looked right into its plastic eyes to answer.
The remote-controlled car was giving a presentation with county Police Officer Brian Markley, who works with Mid-Atlantic AAA on safety programs.
The children, sitting on the floor at eye level with the car, didn't seem to wonder how it was able to talk and move around.
But if they had turned around and looked on stage and behind the curtain, they would have seen Myra Wieman, manager of Safety Services for the Mid-Atlantic Foundation for Safety & Education, a nonprofit arm of AAA Mid-Atlantic. She was speaking through a microphone and moving the car by remote control.
Wieman said the foundation, established about four years ago, acquired Otto about three years ago. It came to Jeffers Hill last school year, too.
Mary McQuaige, the PTA parent who brought Otto to the school, said the program was offered to second-graders last year, but they were more interested in figuring out how the car worked than in hearing the safety message. One child was convinced that the car was being controlled by a tiny person inside it, she said.
This year, only kindergartners and first-graders took part in the half-hour program
The car has been visiting local preschools and private kindergartens. The program also has been brought to Bryant Woods Elementary School.
Jeffers Hill teacher Donna Widmaier said safety lessons from Otto seem to be stick with the pupils, who remembered meeting Otto a year earlier. After last year's program, "the kids talked about it for a while." she said.
And that's good because the message is so important, she said. At the end of the school day, the teachers walk out with the kids, she said. She often sees kids sitting in the front seat of the cars that pick them up, instead of the back seat, which is safer.
Otto holds the attention of the youngsters. The presentation, given to all four first-grade classes this week and to kindergartners in mid-November, included lots of questions directed at pupils, silly jokes and a song about wearing seat belts.
The sessions began with Markley introducing himself as a police officer. Otto was hidden under a blanket. Then Markley pulled off the cover to show Otto, who was snoring away.
The car seemed to splutter awake. "I really have to stop staying up late and watching television," Otto said.
"There must have been a big race on," Markley said to the pupils. "He likes watching car races."
From there, the talk turns to seat belts. "If you always wear your seat belt -- always, you never forget -- raise your hand," said Otto. Every pupil stretched a hand high.
Markley discussed booster seats, telling kids that they need to use the seats until they are 6 years old. Even if they are old enough to stop, they might want to continue using booster seats so they can see out the windows better, and also so the seat belt lies in the right place, without cutting into their necks, he said.
"What's the best place to sit in a car?" Markley asked William Mah, 6. "In one of the seats," William said. With further prompting, he said the back seat is safest.
Markley agreed. He also told the pupils that it is best to get out of a car on the sidewalk side.
Markley and Otto also talked about bicycle helmets. Markley demonstrated the best way to wear helmets on Raphael Melgar, 7, and Raehana Anwar, 6. He showed the pupils how to make the helmet tight but not uncomfortable, and how to wear it on the forehead, not toward the back of the head.
Otto asked pupils what would happen if they fell off their bicycle and broke a leg. The answer was that they would get a cast. "What's that very important thing in your head?" the car asked. A brain, said the children. "Is there a cast for that?" No, they said.
When Markley talked about the best way to cross a street, he asked the children to stand up and pretend that a line of blue tiles on the floor was the street. Otto wheeled over to one end to play the role of waiting car. With prompting from Otto and Markley, the kids looked left, then right, then left again before crossing, all holding hands.
"Should we run, so we can get to the other side fast?" asked Otto. "No," the pupils said in unison.
Markley asked if they should ever cross the street or get in the car with a stranger, and the children again said no.
"You guys are a smart bunch of kids here," Markley said.