The numbers were as staggering as they are predictable: 16-year-old drivers are nine times as likely to be in a car accident than any other age group but make up only a little more than six percent of all drivers. Twenty-three percent of teenagers have admitted to drinking and driving, while more than 47 percent have been in the car with a friend who had been drinking.
Despite 20 teenage driving fatalities in the region since the beginning of the school year, will it be enough to keep students driving safely this prom and graduation season?
AT A PRESENTATION at Marshall High School Thursday evening, representatives from AAA, the Fairfax County Police, Statefarm Insurance and Pat Collins, news anchor from Channel 4, spoke to approximately 50 parents and students about a topic they’re all too familiar with: The consequences of teenager’s invincibility complex while driving.
John Hillaert is one of the lucky ones, the way he sees it.
“Eleven months ago, my son Chris was driving down this street from a friend’s house after school,” he began, a slide presentation showing on a blank white screen.
Chris was checking his cell phone’s voice mail to see if his former girlfriend, with whom he’d broken up at the prom two nights before, had called.
When he looked up, people were walking across the street.
He swerved to avoid them, over-corrected and lost control of his car.
His car wrapped around a tree, trapping him inside, under metal, wood and glass, for 62 minutes while four rescue squads tried to pry him free.
The photo of the wreckage site is numbing: two trees had to be removed to free Chris from the car, Hillaert said. The car is in a U-shape around the tree, lying on its side, headlights and tail lights parallel to each other.
Hillaert takes a moment while guiding through the photos. “This is still hard for me to talk about,” he said, looking to the ground, clearing his throat.
Despite losing two units of blood while trapped in the car and suffering injuries to his head and arm, Chris has recovered.
A family photo of Chris and his two sisters looks deceptively normal, as though the crash never happened. He has little memory of the accident, his father said, but the lesson has been learned.
“When you survive an accident like that, it’s just starting,” Hillaert said of the lasting impact of an accident. “You don’t know what will happen to you later in life, or to your family, or your friends.”
Chris carries around photos of his accident to remind his friends of how close he came to dying, the result of a distracted driver.
“He really wants to share his experience with his friends. Some listen, some don’t,” he said.
ONE OF THE students that did not listen was Eric Johnson, a 16-year-old from Vienna that was killed when he slammed into a tree on a narrow street last fall while speeding to race another car.
“Two hours after Chris was talking to Eric about his driving, we were having dinner with Eric’s mother when the phone rang,” Hillaert said.
The impact of accidents, like Chris’s, and fatalities, like Eric, are short lived with most schools and teenagers, he said.
“Eric Johnson’s death traumatized Madison High School for about 10 days,” he said. “So how do I get people to understand? As parents, we’re not in control of our adolescent youth. Talking with them is the best chance we have, even if we think they’re not listening.”
Pat Collins, who produced a four-segment series on Channel 4 last fall titled “Dying to Drive,” said the series was “one of the most important things” he’s done in his career.
“I don’t think we can talk about this enough,” he said. “If this does nothing other than get parents and teenagers around the dinner table talking, it’s something.”
Raising the driving age to 18 or older may not do anything to help curb the accidents, he said, and some teenagers need to drive in order to get to work, run errands or help with younger siblings.
A simpler and more effective and immediate solution, he said, is just getting teenagers to wear seatbelts.
“If I could go around and buckle up all you teenagers every morning, we could cut fatalities by 50 percent,” he said. “I fear this time of year because I know there’s a good chance I’ll be telling this story yet again.”
Lon Anderson, a representative of from AAA’s Mid-Atlantic office, said in 2003, 7,884 teenagers were involved in traffic accidents.
“We’ve lost 20 teenagers since October,” he said. “This happens literally every single day and we don’t get it. We just don’t get it.”
Teenage drivers should do a better job than their older counterparts, he said. “Your eyes are better, your reflexes are sharper, your hearing is more accurate,” he said. “It’s your lack of judgment, your desire for acceptance by your peers, you lack of experience that makes you dangerous.”
On average, one teenager every hour during the weekend dies in a traffic accident, he said. During the week, the rate slows to one teenager every two hours.
“LAWS ARE TOOLS. Some parents think they’re tools for judges and legislators, but they’ll tell you, the laws are passed for parents to enforce,” Anderson said. “It’s amazing the number of parents whose children are arrested for driving late at night because they don’t know the law.”
Delegate Jim Scott said although the school’s resource officer was happy with the turnout, he was not.
“There are 1,300 students at this school, which means there should be about 2,600 parents here tonight,” he said. “I think parents don’t get the message and clearly, the kids don’t think it’ll be them” killed or injured in accidents, he said.
A high priority for the next legislation session, Scott said, is passing a primary seat belt law, which would allow officers to pull a car over if the driver is not wearing a seat belt. Currently, an officer is not likely to pull a driver over if seen without a seat belt on, but it is usually a secondary offense ticketed after speeding or an accident, he said.
Perhaps it is the quick pace of life people have become accustomed to that leads to so many fatalities, said Sharon Godfrey from Statefarm Insurance.
“Everything needs to be done at double the speed,” she said. “It is impossible to believe how many accidents happen because of speed. You don’t have to be hospitalized or killed by the accident, but you’re more likely to be either of those things if you have an accident when you’re speeding.”
And when a young driver gets a speeding ticket, that looks like a risky driver to an insurance company. “That’s a statistic that you’re more likely to be in an accident, if there’s a history of speeding,” she said.
“Parents who bring their children in to find out how speeding or other tickets affect their insurance rates are very surprised,” she said.
Holding five accident forms in his hand, school resource officer Tom Harrington read information from the five fatal accidents in Fairfax County since this school year began.
Driving at 55 miles per hour, he said, a car travels 163 feet in one and a half seconds. “It takes a second and a half to realize you need to slow down and another second and a half to hit the breaks,” he said.
As a police officer, he had to re-learn to drive in various situations, including driving at very high speeds.
“I’ve gone as fast as 120 miles per hour and it scared me,” he said. “Anyone who drives at 120 miles per hour and isn’t scared does not belong behind the wheel of a car.”
THE MESSAGE is simple, he said.
“What we’re trying to tell you tonight is we really care about you,” he said. “This isn’t like a PlayStation game, where you can hit the re-set button when you crash your car. You’re not taking this seriously enough.”
For parents, handing their child a driver’s license is “the hardest thing you can do. It means you’re a full adult, you’re your own responsibility,” he said. “Each and every time you walk out the door, your parents’ hearts skip a beat. If the phone rings and you’re not home, your heart skips a beat. And when an officer comes to the door, your parents fall to the floor.”
He asked the students to prevent him from doing his job.
“You need to realize, these things will kill you,” he said. “I’ve got 1,331 kids and if anything happens to any of you, I get a page in the middle of the night. Maybe they’ll let me go to talk to your parents because they know me a little.”