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As Mourning Continues, Toughest Questions Remain

Parents and teens struggle to confront the dangerous choices that are killing teen drivers.

As the Winston Churchill High School community continues to mourn the death of junior Sarkis Nazarian Jr. questions about teen alcohol use and teen driving have taken on newfound urgency.

Sarkis died in a car accident on the 12500 block of Travilah Road during the early morning hours of Saturday, Nov. 13. According to police reports, he had been at a student party at which alcohol was served and was driving too fast for the wet conditions when his 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee failed to negotiate a curve, slid off the road and struck a tree. Sarkis’ two passengers were not seriously injured in the crash.

The State Medical Examiner’s office revealed Wednesday that alcohol was present in Sarkis’s body when he died. It is illegal for drivers under 21 to have any alcohol in their system; however, exactly how high Sarkis’ blood alcohol level was has not been revealed, pending further tests by the medical examiner, which are expected to take several weeks.

Sarkis was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash, according to Montgomery County Police’s preliminary accident report.

In addition to driving too fast for the road conditions, Sarkis was driving past midnight, which is illegal for drivers under the age of 18 according to Maryland’s graduated licensing laws.

“ROOKIE DRIVER,” AN updated version of Maryland’s graduated licensing program, took effect in July, 1999. According to the law, provisional license holders under 18 may not drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a supervising driver who is 21 or older, and has held a license for a minimum of three years.

The presence of other teenagers in a vehicle compounds the risks for teenage drivers, too. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for the teenage driver the presence of one passenger almost doubles the risk of a fatal crash compared to driving alone. With two or more passengers, the fatal crash risk is five times as high as driving alone.

The recitation of statistics about teen driving, though, is unlikely to be of any comfort to the friends and family who held a candlelight vigil for Sarkis Thursday or a satisfactory answer to the troubled classmates and parents who discussed the teen driving epidemic in an emotional open meeting in the Churchill auditorium Nov. 16.

Teens spoke with candor about the weekend drinking culture and dialogue focused on tightening the parent-teen relationship, people present at the meeting said.

“Even though it’s caused by a tragic event you couldn’t help but feel a lot of hope,” said Del. Jean Cryor (R-15), who represents Potomac. “You went out there thinking this is the first day of something important happening.”

Simply raising the driving age is not a viable legislative solution to the problems, Cryor said, because too many families rely on their teen drivers who may hold part-time jobs or conduct family business. In response to parents who expressed indignation that the maximum fine for an adult who furnishes alcohol to minors is $500, Cryor said that she intends to introduce legislation to double that amount.

But legislation is not ultimately the answer, Cryor said: “I want to say one thing: as many good laws as we can craft and pass, nothing is stronger than the parent who says no.”

Laura Luchs, the mother of a junior at Landon is one such parent. She believes in the efficacy of the graduated licensing law — if it’s enforced.

“I make my kid come in at 12. I’ve told him, ‘It’s the law, you’re a new driver, and you’re coming in at 12’” she said. “My son will say, ‘Well the police don’t enforce it until 12:30 and that’s only if they’re driving goofy,’” or that classmates’ parents don’t enforce the provision, but Luchs stands by it.

“I think that people don’t take [the provisional law] seriously. And I take it very seriously, ‘cause I know that dead is dead. That’s it.” Luchs said that she waits for her son to return home at midnight and smells him for the scent of alcohol. If he says that he’s staying at friends, she asks him to call from that person’s home phone — not a cell phone — and checks the caller ID to confirm that he is where he says.

“I think a lot of parents trust their kids and I just don’t. And my kids never given me a reason not to but I just don’t. ... I just don’t want anything to happen to him,” Luchs said.

Some parents may believe that Luchs’s measures are extreme, but as the introspection and searching prompted by Sarkis’ death continue, other parents may be reconsidering how they monitor their children’s weekend activities.

“We’ve had to go to 11 families now of teenagers, and tell them that their son or daughter is dead,” said Officer Derek Baliles, a Montgomery County Police spokesman. “As we learn each time, these are beautiful lives, these are people with potential, these are people who were loved.”

In enforcement efforts, “We’re going to continue to be aggressive and vocal. Aggressive with innovative programs, and sometimes just saying the same old thing,” Baliles said.

But no matter how strictly parents or police monitor teens’ activities, the real change may have to start with the teens themselves.

“Why did you have to put your hand on that beer? Why did you have to put the car into fifth gear?” asked Churchill junior Kevin Krainson at the candlelight vigil, reading from a poem he wrote for Sarkis and giving voice to questions that high school students and their parents are asking throughout Montgomery County.

Teens who make decisions like the ones Sarkis Nazarian made last week believe that they are going to live forever, Baliles said.

“We do live forever in video games, and they’ve become so much a part of our culture.  ... It’s not like that in the real world.  One mistake can take your life, or can change your life forever with a permanent disability.”