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Small community endures year of tragedy

A small community in central Illinois is searching for answers in the wake of a string of traffic accidents that has killed 15 teenagers over the past 15 months.
The family of 15-year-old Ashley Waddell bought the crumpled remains of the car in which she was riding with two boys when it crashed in Tazewell County, Ill., on Sept. 28, 2005. The three teens were among 15 killed over the past 15 months in a string of accidents in the community.
The family of 15-year-old Ashley Waddell bought the crumpled remains of the car in which she was riding with two boys when it crashed in Tazewell County, Ill., on Sept. 28, 2005. The three teens were among 15 killed over the past 15 months in a string of accidents in the community.Courtesy of the Waddell family

Ashley Waddell and her friends just wanted to catch the end of a favorite show. They ended up losing their lives.

Police suspect the car Ashley was riding in with two boys was traveling nearly 100 mph when it plowed into a tree on a lonely country road last September as the three teens raced home to watch “One Tree Hill.”

The crash that claimed the lives of Waddell, Zachary Swingle and Andrew Ford was just one in a series of traffic accidents that have killed 15 teenagers in central Illinois’ Tazewell County over the past 15 months.

“We’ve never had a year like this before,” said Paula Davis, superintendent of Pekin High School, where six of the teens went to school.

Illinois is considered a success story when it comes to driver safety — Chicago served as the backdrop for the annual Click It or Ticket safety campaign in May — but this tract of soybean, corn and pig farms has become a grief-stricken aberration.

County coroner Dennis Conover, who investigated all of the deaths, said, “We’ll have one or two every year or so, but this year we just had a disaster. It’s devastated me, because I have three teenagers at home.”

Speeding, fatigue and alcohol played varying roles in the accidents, Conover said. Most of the teens were wearing seat belts, but in many cases they provided little protection during high-speed crashes on the rural area’s lonely two-lane roads.

‘We’re getting to the kids’
Tazewell officials and grieving families have filmed public service announcements aimed at teen drivers and made presentations at local schools featuring sobering facts and tearful testimonials.

“Losing my daughter is harder than I ever imagined it would be,” said Randy Waddell, who has become an outspoken advocate after the death of his 15-year-old daughter, Ashley.

Waddell, who, along with his wife, Cathy, works at the Caterpillar Inc. proving ground in nearby Peoria, has towed the mangled car that Ashley died in to high schools for presentations that feature the girl's favorite songs and pictures of her competing in swim meets.

“After I did the first presentation, when we were driving home, I told my wife, ‘I feel better now than I ever have since our daughter’s accident,’” said Randy Waddell. “As long as it keeps making me feel better, we’ll do it, and I definitely think we’re getting to the kids.”

‘That’s high school kids’
Traffic deaths are actually down across Illinois. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which sponsors the Click It or Ticket program, credits stiffer seat belt laws and a new awareness program that Illinois adopted in 2003. In 2004, traffic deaths dropped 7 percent, from 1,454 the year before to 1,355, a 60-year-low for the state.

But the deaths in Tazewell County tell another story about driver safety. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teens, according to the NHTSA, and more teen drivers, especially young women, are dying in crashes.

Taken together, the statistics paint a troubling picture for young drivers.

“That’s the message that we’re trying to get out to the kids: There does need to be care and caution when you’re behind the wheel of the vehicle,” said Pekin High’s Davis, an educator for the past 17 years. “That’s high school kids. They don’t think it’s going to happen to them ... but that’s characterized high school for a long time.”

Making the most of a tragedy
The Waddells have pressed state lawmakers to increase the amount of training young drivers receive. They believe teens shouldn’t receive a driver’s license until they’ve completed 18 months of supervised driving with an adult with a clean record. The current requirement is three months.

“When kids reach 18, they’re going off to college away from home, and they’re going to get even less parental guidance,” Randy Waddell said. “All our intent is, is to give them more guidance earlier in life.”

Changes to the law are still being debated, but the Waddells and Conover believe their message is getting through to kids.

“There’s been more awareness of everything,” Conover said. “I can tell when I talk to people and I can see it in the eyes of young people. They don’t have that look of ‘it can’t happen to me.’ It seems that they now know that it can. I can only take that as a good thing to come out of this.”

‘The whole school came together’
Losing so many friends so abruptly has humbled many kids, and softened some of the rough edges of adolescence, according to students and staff at Pekin High.

“When it first started happening, the whole school came together,” said Melanie Ramsey, a cousin of Ashley Waddell. “I think it made the school closer, made my friends — the people I hang out with — closer. We all kind of realized that life’s too short to be mad at each other over stupid things.”

Ramsey said Pekin students organized their own memorial services, candlelight vigils and fund-raisers. The seats used by Ashley and the other lost classmates were left unoccupied as a sign of respect.

Still, it took time for Melanie to accept Ashley’s death. “It was so shocking that it was hard to believe at first,” she said. “When Christmas came around — our families normally get together — you kind of got to realize that she’s not going to be here.”