The many factors in the crash that killed 16-year-old Lauren Sausville on Dec. 3 came together in a split second, on a curve that would claim her life.
Hurrying to catch up to a friend on Colchester Road in Fairfax County that night, police say, her vehicle's excessive speed, the darkness, the beer she'd had, her inexperience as a driver increased the odds of a crash. And then there was the 1999 Ford Explorer she drove, a sport-utility vehicle that her stepmother, Debbie Sausville, called "too much car" for a 5-foot-4 high school junior who weighed barely 100 pounds.
Missing the curve, Sausville rode up the embankment on the right. At that moment, crash investigators say, an experienced driver might still have maintained control. But Sausville had had her license only three weeks. She swerved, and the SUV flipped onto the driver's side and slid, in a hail of sparks, into her friend's waiting car.
The friend escaped with minor injuries. Sausville, pushed by her vehicle's crumpling roof into the back seat, died instantly.
"You make a hard steering input, and that's what SUVs do," said Sgt. Pat Wimberly, who heads the Fairfax County police crash reconstruction unit. "They require an extra level of experience and maturity to operate."
Sausville, like most new drivers, "didn't have that," he said.
Higher risk for inexperienced
Forty-nine people ages 15 to 20 died in SUV and pickup truck accidents in Maryland, Virginia and the District last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The problem, researchers say, is that SUVs have a higher center of gravity and are harder to control in an emergency, which makes inexperienced teenage drivers more vulnerable.
Recent safety improvements to SUVs, a federal study found, are less likely to protect teenage drivers; like Sausville, they often drive older-model SUVs.
"Because there's a good likelihood that a teen driver could be involved in a crash, parents would be well advised to select a vehicle that has the best safety record," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the traffic safety group, which did the study.
Vehicles with poor rollover ratings, he said, "do not fall into that category."
Eron Shosteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association of nine car and light-truck manufacturers that represents the industry on safety issues, stressed that "the industry has always said that all drivers must realize SUVs handle differently than passenger cars. There is extensive information in all SUV owner's manuals about the need to drive these vehicles in different ways."
Teen SUV crashes, he said, "go back to driver behavior. That's playing a very big role."
Rollovers especially dangerous
Rollovers accounted for 3 percent of U.S. crashes in 2002 but nearly 33 percent of driving deaths, according to the traffic safety administration.
On Oct. 17, Laura Lynam, 17, was headed to a high school crew meet in Occoquan, a passenger in a 2002 Cadillac Escalade. The vehicle's driver, a 17-year-old, swerved while she tried to change lanes. Police said the vehicle, carrying seven teenagers, rolled several times and landed on its passenger side.
The other six girls suffered minor injuries. Lynam, in the front passenger seat, died.
"If Laura were in a car, I don't think this would have happened," said her father, Terence, of Alexandria. He said his daughter, a student at T.C. Williams High School, drove a 1992 Honda Civic "that couldn't go that fast, and you couldn't get seven kids into it."
The driver on the day of the accident, he said, normally drove a Toyota Corolla. But her parents were out of town, and she took the Escalade. She was charged with reckless driving and traveling with too many passengers. Virginia law prohibits drivers 17 and younger from carrying more than one passenger.
In the weeks since the crash, Lynam has scrolled through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site, www.safercar.gov, where the agency's rollover rankings give 2002 Escalade models two and three stars, meaning they have a 20 to 40 percent chance of rolling over in a crash.
Auto industry defends SUV designs
In January 2003, NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge, a former emergency room physician, raised a furor among automakers when he told an industry gathering in Detroit that he wouldn't buy his child "a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on earth." Runge, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment last week.
Shosteck, of the auto trade group, said, "We're now on the third generation of SUVs, [which] are wider and lower to the ground, with bumper heights that match up better with passenger cars. "But no technology is going to replace a safe, responsible and belted driver."
In one of this school year's first teen driving fatalities involving an SUV in the Washington area, Kevin Anthony Nelson, 18, of Temple Hills was driving his 2001 Nissan Pathfinder on Allentown Road in Fort Washington on Aug. 23 when he collided with a car making a turn, police said. Like nearly three-quarters of people killed in rollover crashes, Nelson was not wearing a seat belt. The Pathfinder flipped, and Nelson was killed, according to investigators. Prince George's police said the investigation is continuing.
Sarkis George Nazarian Jr., 16, of Potomac died Nov. 13 on Travilah Road in Montgomery County when he lost control of his 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee, ran off the road in the rain and hit a tree. Nazarian, who was known as Sako, was not wearing a seat belt, police said, was speeding and had alcohol in his system.
New technology may reduce rollovers
Julie Rochman, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Insurance Association, said young drivers are attracted to SUVs. But, she said, "what the teenager wants to drive is not necessarily the best vehicle for them to drive. You want something that's going to be forgiving."
In a study done by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, researchers found that a loss of driver control — common in teen accidents — was the leading cause of SUV rollovers.
The study was funded by a maker of electronic stability control devices, which sense a loss of control and automatically stabilize the vehicle. The study found that the devices could help stop "as many as half" of rollovers, said John Woodrooffe, head of the Transportation Safety Analysis Division at the institute.
"But if [young drivers] are going to the used-car lot for SUVs," Woodrooffe said, "they're not going to get the benefit."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.