SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
Although teens make up only 7 percent of the total driving population, they account for 14 percent of all fatalities. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 19. "In 2000 alone, we recorded 4,877 teen deaths as a result of preventable crashes," says Rose McMurray, associate administrator for traffic safety programs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Today, 16-year-old girls are just as likely to crash as 16-year-old boys. And the fatality rate for girls ages 15 to 20 increased 4 percent from 1990 to 2000. "Parents are letting girls drive more often, so they are just as much at risk," says McMurray.
Then, of course, there are the many innocent victims who die in car crashes with teens each year. "Teen crashes have become an epidemic," says McMurray. "Teens are risk takers." Of those involved in crashes in 2000, 36 percent of teens had been drinking, and 58 percent were speeding at the time of the crash, according to the NHTSA. "They think they are immortal," says McMurray.
Dennis Doverspike, PhD, a professor of psychology who studies teen risk-taking attitudes at the University of Akron in Ohio, echoes McMurray's sentiments. "It takes several years for driving to become an automatic response and teens don't have these years of experience under their belts," he says. Most teens never have to practice driving in inclement weather or high-speed traffic before getting a license, says Doverspike, and "When placed in one of these situations, they don't know how to respond. Add to that raging hormones and you've got yourself one inexperienced and distracted driver."
Unlike past generations, many of today's teens don't learn how to drive from their parents. Instead, they are sent to drivers' education programs -- something McMurray believes is partly to blame for the high rate of teen accidents. "Drivers' education doesn't necessarily produce safe drivers," says McMurray. "Instead, it comes down to a teen's demeanor and overall experience level. In fact," she points out, "many states don't even require teens to get in a car with an instructor before earning a license. Parents send in a check thinking that their child will be trained in all aspects of driving, but that just doesn't happen." Instead, she says, teens are taught only the basics and how to pass the driver's test.
In some cases, the driving instructors themselves may be poor examples of safe driving. For instance, a recent survey of driving schools in New York state found that 46 of 257 instructors had criminal records and some had suspended licenses. Sixteen percent owned vehicles that failed simple safety inspections.
Consequently, many parents never realize what a risk their teens are taking when they get behind the wheel. Take the case of Danielle Simas, 17, of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. On February 25, 2000, Danielle was driving to her boyfriend's house on the interstate, when she attempted to switch into the center lane. She almost collided with the car next to her and quickly veered back into her lane. As she swerved, her Nissan Maxima hit an icy patch of road, skidded, and crashed into an embankment. The impact of the collision propelled Danielle's body from the car into the road, where she was hit by an oncoming car and died instantly.
"The first things we asked the police were, 'Was she driving fast?' 'No.' 'Did she have her seatbelt on?' 'Yes.' 'Was she using her cell phone?' 'No,'" says Phyllis Simas, 46, Danielle's mother. "She just wasn't experienced enough to handle the icy conditions."
Danielle's father, Tony, 47, a credit collections manager, says he and his wife had sent Danielle to what they thought was the best drivers' education program in town, but they learned later that she'd never been given skid training. "She didn't know what to do when her car lost control," he says.
While many teens die from lack of training and experience, some perish as innocent passengers of their friends. In 2000 alone, 2,132 teens were killed while riding with another young driver.
That's what happened to Bryan, 19, and Mike Marvick, 16, of Corona, California. As best friends and brothers, "They were always together," says their mother, Chris Marvick, 47. On Labor Day 1998, the brothers went cruising with a close family friend, Nat Young, 16, and a new friend, Michael Murphy, 16.
At 3:30 a.m. the Marvicks' doorbell rang. Chris remembers bolting awake. When she opened the door, she was greeted by the Riverside County coroner. "He told me Mikey was dead and Bryan was in critical condition," she says. "I was stunned."
Chris later learned that on the way to a high-school party, Murphy, the driver, lost control of the car and crashed. Mike, the boy who was his mother's "cheerleader," and Murphy died instantly. Bryan died hours later on September 7 from severe brain trauma. Chris was holding his hand. "I promised him that he would never be forgotten," she says, "and that I would find out what happened so that it would never happen to anyone else."
When Chris began asking for answers about her sons' deaths, the police confirmed her worst fears. Toxicology tests showed that Murphy had marijuana in his bloodstream. (No drugs or alcohol were detected in Mike's or Bryan's systems.) The authorities also discovered that just before Murphy's car crashed, it had reached a speed of 100 mph.
Chris believes that her sons would never have ridden in the car had they known more about Murphy. "I wish I had asked more questions before they left that night," she says sadly. "I might have stopped them."
But even without the influences of drugs and alcohol, just getting into a car with another teen can be deadly. According to a recent study at the John Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, the more passengers a teenage driver has in his car, the more likely he will die in an accident. "That means if your teen is carting his three friends around town, he has a pretty good chance of getting into a crash," says Rose McMurray. "As a mother of a teen, that scares me to death."
Today, there are a number of efforts underway to keep teens safe behind the wheel. In Florida, where Tiffany Accardi crashed, her family started a committee called TEAM (Together Educating Adolescent Motorists), which eventually changed the state's driving laws. Now there is a mandatory graduated driver's license program in place that restricts teen driving during "peak accident" times such as weekend nights and certain weeknights, and puts a limit on the number of passengers a teen can carry in her car. "We knew the laws had to change or other kids were going to die just like Tiffany," says her aunt, Diane Zeidwig.
"Since Florida inducted the graduated system, we've seen a 9 percent decrease in teen fatalities in the state," says Rose McMurray. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have similar programs, and the NHTSA reports that these programs have resulted in a 13 percent drop in teen crash rates. While every state's program is different, McMurray says there is almost always a restriction on night driving because "That's when the most crashes occur." In addition, many states restrict the number of passengers allowed in a teen's car, and prohibit driving during peak hours on holidays and in the summer.
In Massachusetts, the parents of Danielle Simas helped state senator Guy Glodis draw up a bill which calls for mandatory teen-driver exams that include questions about skidding and hydroplaning. According to the bill, before a Massachusetts teen can receive a license, she has to answer all the questions about skids correctly. (At the time this story was posted, the bill was still pending.)
Phyllis and Tony Simas are surprised that they had to be the ones to make this change. "I can't believe that in an area where it snows and rains frequently, this had never been addressed," says Phyllis.
Like many parents whose teens died in car crashes, the Simases are also doing something positive in their daughter's memory. They are raising money for a scholarship in Danielle's name. "Danielle had a learning disability and she struggled with it throughout high school. The scholarship will help a learning-disabled student attend college," says Tony Simas.
Tiffany Accardi's family donated all of her organs after her death. Says her aunt, "It's like she's still here helping people." Tiffany's mother, Billie Lamonaco, is speaking out about her daughter's death and the benefits of organ donation.
Chris Marvick, whose sons Mike and Bryan were killed in 1998, recently helped to put together a service video called "Drive to Live," which will be available to schools and churches this fall. "I hope teachers and counselors show this to teens," she says. "If it saves one life, I've done my job." (To order the video, visit Drivetolive.com.)
Chris has also found some closure by traveling across the country and sharing what happened to her sons with other teenagers. "Some kids cry when I tell my story," she says. "I think they leave changed." After Chris discusses the dangers of drinking and driving, she likes to get personal. "My sons were teenagers, but they still hunted for Easter eggs," she tells the kids. "Now, all the celebrating has to be done at their gravesides."
To keep your teen safe, draw up a teen-parent driver contract (go to Teendrivers.com for examples). These contracts allow both parents and teens to mutually sign off on certain safety rules, including seatbelt use and no drinking and driving. McMurray says that with these contracts, teens have to think twice before driving dangerously. And, because you sign off on many of the same rules as your child, teens respect the written agreement.
If either party -- parent or teen -- breaks the rules, certain driving privileges are suspended.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, July 2002.