SILVERSPRINGS, MD.— Like a lot of parents, Dr. Arturo Betancourt and his wife Lulu struggled to strike a balance between protecting their 16-year-old daughter Alicia and overprotecting her. Alicia was the kind of child parents never worry about: a bright talented artist and popular pom pom girl known for her perpetual smile.
Alicia was about as responsible a 16-year-old as you could find. So when she asked to go out for ice cream with a 16-year-old old boy one Friday night, her parents said yes — but they still laid down some strict ground rules: The boy has to pick her up from her house, get out of the car, ask for her, and meet her dad.
“I want to speak to him,” Dr. Betancourt told Alicia. He even reminded her to avoid distracting him when he’s driving.
“Sometimes she would complain about all the rules,” says Alicia’s mother, Lulu. Rules included a curfew that Alicia always obeyed.
But that night she didn’t come home on time.
The Betancourts began to worry, and finally, filled with foreboding, they called the police.
The dispatcher told them to stay at home, and that two officers were on their way.
“At that point, I knew that my daughter was dead,” says Arturo Betancourt.
Alicia, who was wearing a seatbelt, had been killed instantly in a terrible crash. Police say the boy lost control of the car. He hit a utility pole and was seriously injured.
“The day after my daughter had died and we were at the funeral parlor, the funeral director, who was a very kind man, said, ‘It is time for you to pick out a casket.’ You feel that you’re just sinking into an abyss for which you don’t feel that you’ll be able to escape,” recalls Dr. Betancourt.
In the weeks after Alicia’s death, her father found himself on the Internet searching for anything he could find about teenage driving. Among all the information, he learned that teenagers not only have the highest crash and fatality rates of any age group but 16-year-olds specifically are at the greatest risk.
A 'national health epidemic'
The National Institutes of Health has conducted a study which sheds new light on what parents have long suspected: that teenagers often lack good judgment. The study shows that there may be a biological explanation — the teen brain may simply lack the capacity to make critical driving decisions.
Using brain scans, NIH saw that teenagers' brains are not fully developed — particularly, the portions that regulate risk-taking and impulse control, crucial to driving. The process of the brain maturing are not complete until after the age of 20, four years after most teenagers start to drive.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, calls this a “national health epidemic.” Runge is also an emergency room doctor who has treated too many teenage crash victims.
“If we had any other disease that was wiping out our teenagers at the rate of thousands per year, there would be no end to what we would do as a society to stop that,” says Dr. Runge.
Reducing the risk
Some attempts have been made to reduce teen driving deaths. About 44 states and the District of Columbia now have something called graduated licensing for young drivers which have restrictions on everything from how late they can drive at night, to how many passengers they can carry.
And although graduated licensing laws have lowered the rate of teen deaths by as much as 25 percent, Dr. Runge and other safety experts say a lot more needs to be done.
A growing number of people think raising the driving age would save lives. They look to Europe, where in most countries you have to be 18 to drive and fatalities are much lower.
However, in the United States, there is less public transportation and more dependence on cars. And each state makes its own laws.
In America, driving at 16 has been considered a right and rite of passage since the early days of the automobile—and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
That’s why Dr. Runge says parents have to take matters into own hands and become more involved in their teen’s driving. “It’s a parent’s job to make sure that their kid knows how to handle a vehicle in every circumstance by riding with them and by supervising what they do,” Runge says.
Runge advises having teenagers in the safest vehicle possible, and to make sure that everyone is buckled up.
These are rules the father of Alicia Betancourt is fighting to enforce. Under Maryland law, Alicia's death was determined to be a tragic accident, not a crime. The boy could not be prosecuted. He faced four traffic citations including speeding and a failure to wear a seatbelt and was fined a little over $500, the maximum the state allowed.
Today, Dr. Betancourt is advocating a voluntary program that is even tougher than many states' graduated licensing. The program, called “Checkpoints,” requires parents and teens to sign a contract that restricts nighttime driving and the number of passengers a teen can have in the car. These restrictions, Dr. Betancourt believes, might have saved Alicia — and will save the lives of others.
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