While researching a story about teenage car crashes and why those accidents continue to end so many young lives, we met a woman in suburban Baltimore with a powerful story to share.
Robin Thompson was driving home on a clear bright day in June 2003, when she was alarmed by the sight of a wrecked car twisted around a tree. And what's even worse, Thompson soon discovered that her daughter Ashley, just 16, was the sole victim of the fatal accident.
"The car went into a skid," Thompson explained, unsure why her daughter had to swerve. “Ashley didn't have the skill to recover."
Her mom told us Ashley was an honor student who had a safe driver contract with her parents: no cell phones and limited driving hours. She was a responsible teenager who tragically lost her life on an otherwise beautiful afternoon.
Dangers after school
To honor her memory, Thompson has been on a mission, telling teens and parents that if it can happen to her daughter, it can happen to anyone. "If that can keep just one teen alive by talking about Ashley," she said while beginning to sob, "then, I've done her proud."
The motoring and leisure organization AAA had introduced us to Thompson. The group had just released a study showing that the hours after school can be almost as deadly as weekend nights for teenage drivers.
"We think it’s in part because teens aren't really receiving the same amount of supervision during that time of the week," explained Robert Darbelnet, AAA's president.
Safety experts also say it’s because there are so many teens in cars weekday afternoons, driving home, to work or to after school activities, and often traveling as rush hour traffic begins to build.
No. 1 cause of death among teens
Traffic accidents continue to be the leading cause of death for teenagers, some 6,000 every year. That's why the number 16 featured prominently at a driver safety session for hundreds of New Jersey high school students last week sponsored by the Allstate foundation. The idea of the session, dubbed “Keep the Drive,” is to find responsible teen leaders who will take what they learn here back to their schools. Think of it as the teen-to-teen approach.
When the moderator asked the students what the number 16 meant, he got a range of responses. Most thought it was the age most states issue driver learning permits. Wrong. It's the number of teens who die in traffic accidents every day.
Just about every teen there had an accident story to tell. "The car in front of us stopped short, and we rear-ended it," said Julie Baker, 15.
"We hit a telephone pole, and then we bounced back into the road, and an oncoming car hit us," explained Rey Gutierra, 17.
Why does it happen so often? "Carelessness, not paying attention," said Jessica Ohnikian, 15. "Cell phones, I see a lot of people on cell phones."
In fact, many safety experts will tell you inexperience behind the wheel and immaturity are the main reasons teenagers get into so many accidents. Another sobering stat from the National Highway Safety administration says 7,460 15-20-year-old drivers were behind the wheel in fatal crashes in 2005. A lot of people will tell you teenagers are the most dangerous drivers on the roads.
Mom in the back seat
Many parents across the country are finding new ways to monitor and keep track of their kids once they hand over the keys. In Florida, Dena Hurst gave her daughter a bumper sticker from ReportMyTeen.Com that posts a phone number to call when her daughter Stephanie drives badly. After a few calls to her mom to report speeding to school, Stephanie admits she's a better driver because of the sticker. "It's like always having her mom in the back seat," Dena Hurst said.
Other companies offer high-tech solutions such as GPS tracking devices that fit in cell phones. They can send real-time information like speed and the location of a car back to a home computer. Made by TeenArriveAlive.com, one such device can also store several days of travel information for parents to review.
Want to monitor your teens without their knowledge? Alltrack U.S.A. makes a black box recorder that slips under the dash. Like the GPS, it can send real-time information back to a home computer or store the data for later.
"We find that half the parents tell their teens about it and half don't," said Mark Allbaugh, the company founder. The device also lets you wire into a light on the dash that, for example, comes on when the driver exceeds a certain speed.
Some of the teenagers we talked to hated the idea of their parents’ "spying" on them. But beyond that, a number of safety experts fear the bumper stickers and high-tech monitors can lull parents into a false sense of security, or worse. "If one believes that the technology is going to keep your teen safe, you may be over-reliant on the technology," says Darbelnet of AAA. "Parents,” he added, should be more "sufficiently focused on affecting the behavior of your teen when they're learning to drive.”
Best advice? More parental involvement
So what's the best way to keep kids safe behind the wheel? Driver safety experts say firm rules, like no cell phones, limited numbers of teen passengers, buckling up every time. Teenagers, we're told, use seat belts less than most drivers.
"What I've found is that it truly is a skill issue, it’s an issue that they've just not had enough training,” added Thompson, Ashley’s mother.
So where do they get that training after driver's ed class is through? "I'd like to see mandatory parental involvement," suggested Thompson. "Where parents have to come to a class themselves to hear about this issue and how they can best help their children be safe drivers."
That’s from a mother trying to raise awareness and honor the memory of a lost child. A story she shares, hoping other parents out there with teenagers on the road won't have to endure the same ordeal.