August 12, 2015
How To Reduce Teen Driving Deaths
By Mike McManus
We regularly read headlines like this: "2 Teens Killed When Car Smashes Into
Tree." They had been at a party with underage drinking, and beer cans, still
cool to the touch, were in the car's wreckage.
The teens who died were in the backseat without their seatbelts on: Calvin Jia-Xing
Li, 18, an outstanding wide receiver on his high school football team and
Alexander Murk. Joseph Ellis, the 18-year-old driver, was a star quarterback,
who broke the state record with 557 passing yards in one game. He was seriously
injured but survived.
"They were all really good kids, great athletes," said Monica Lewis, whose son
played football with them. "And they all had really promising futures. They were
all headed to college."
When police arrived at the home where the party had occurred, a parent answered
the door. Several teenagers were cited for underage alcohol possession.
What's wrong with this picture? Parents should not be hosting parties where
alcoholic beverages are served to minors. In fact, Maryland has a "Social Host
Law" to prosecute parents or homeowners permitting parties with underage
drinking. They are indirectly responsible for the deaths of those two teenagers.
However, to date, six weeks later, no parent has been charged. Why not?
Three weeks later was another headline: "Teen Driver in Fatal Crash Allegedly
Reached 119 MPH." The driver, Austin Donovan Hall, lost control of the car in a
35 mph zone in Olney, MD. Shawn Gangloff, 15, was ejected and died. Another
passenger, Max Dechter, 17, was severely injured. Hall pleaded guilty to a
charge of vehicular manslaughter in Gangloff's death and a charge of causing a
life-threatening injury (to Dechter) while driving impaired by alcohol.
Prosecutors said that Hall's blood-alcohol level was .11 when he was tested at 4
a.m., hours after the accident at 1:30 a.m. on August 30. His attorney said he
pled guilty because he wanted to take responsibility to honor and respect the
Dechter was hospitalized for five weeks and was in a rehabilitation hospital for
five more months. His neck was fractured and an elbow shattered. He also
suffered traumatic brain injury that required him to have to learn to eat and
walk again. "I had to relearn everything," he said. He was wearing a seatbelt
which saved his life.
"We want a message sent to the community that you have to be accountable for
your actions," said Alison Gangloff, the driver's mother. What good will that do
if guilty parents are not charged? (In the Olney accident parents weren't
charged because they were out of the country.)
Max Dechter said his message to other teens would be not to get in a car with a
driver who has been drinking: "It puts others at danger and yourself at danger."
2,524 teenagers aged 13-19 died in motor vehicle crashes in 2013 . Such crashes
are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. Some 44% of those deaths were to
passengers, not drivers. Teens also cause an astounding number of injuries –
292,000 were treated in hospital emergency rooms. Young people aged 15-24 are
14% of the population, but account for 30% ($19 billion) of the total costs of
vehicle injuries by males and 28% of those among females.
The only good news is that the number of teen deaths is 71% fewer than in 1975
when 8,748 teens were killed. There were even 11% fewer than 2012.
There are three major reasons for the decline in teen deaths. First, seatbelt
use by drivers rose from only 14% in 1983 to 42% for teen drivers (and 87% for
adults). Second, 71% fewer teens had blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above .08
percent in 2013 than in 1982.
Third, all states now have "Graduated Licensing Laws" that restrict teen driving
to some degree. First, teens have a learner's permit, allowing them to drive
only with adult supervision for some months. Stage two allows unsupervised
driving, but kids must be home by 11 p.m. or midnight. Only New Jersey requires
teens to be age 17 to drive.
I asked what the impact would be if all states required age 17. "It would have a
sweeping effect," said a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway
Parents: why don't you require your teen to be 17? And home by 11?
My wife and I told our sons they could not drive until age 17, and they had to
pay part of their insurance costs, and had a curfew. We told them about our
rules years in advance.
None had an accident.
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