Tuesday, June 13, 2000

New law aims at teens, crowded cars

Circumstances in Delhi crash had been anticipated

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DELHI TOWNSHIP — The fatal crash that killed two Delhi teen-age girls and injured nine others Friday is just the scenario a one-year old Ohio law was designed to prevent.

        And as hundreds of students met at Delhi Middle School on their first day of summer break to share their grief with counselors and one another, parents worried that teen drivers still haven't gotten the message.

        “All we can stress as parents is the need to pay attention to their kids, to try to convince them they're not invincible,” said Sherry Armstrong of DelhiShe is the mother of a teen girl and also the aunt of two teen-agers injured in the crash. Amanda Hensley, 14, and her 12-year-old sister, Heather, are recovering at home.

        There were 11 teens in a Jeep Grand Cherokee with five seat belts. An Ohio law passed in Jan uary, 1999, requires that a driver under 17 have only as many teen passengers as there are seat belts. It was part of an overhaul of the rules and laws governing teen-age drivers, including new rules increasing the number of hours teens must drive with parents. The thrust of the law was to protect teens, who are among the highest-risk drivers on the road.

        “In general,” said Delhi Township Cpl. Jim Howarth, “whenever we start doing something for the first time — driving, swimming, or whatever — you're not as alert.”

        Cpl. Howarth said a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore confirmed what police already know and what parents fear.

        The study examined federal auto accident trends from 1992 to 1997, and concluded that 16-year-olds carrying one passenger were 39 percent more likely to get killed than those driving alone.

        However, that jumped to 86 percent with two passen gers and 182 percent with three or more. The rate for 17-year-olds was even higher: 48 percent, 158 percent and 207 percent, respectively, the study determined.

        The reason, researchers said, is simple: Teens driving other teens are more likely to be distracted, to join in conversations, and to “showboat” for their friends by speeding and driving carelessly.

        The driver in the deadly crash in Delhi, 16-year-old Michelle Luhn, has not been charged, Cpl. Howarth said, adding that the investigation continues. Initial reports indicate the girl might have been speeding or driving carelessly.

        Five of the passengers have been interviewed so far, he said, but not Michelle.

        “I want to get her side of the story, too,” he said. “Mentally, it's not going to be easy on her.”

        According to 1998 figures, Ohio statisticians determined that drivers between ages 16 and 20 had a 1 in 5.8 chance of being involved in a car accident.

        Those kind of statistics have led to new laws in several states addressing teen driving. Indiana, for instance, enacted a law last year prohibiting drivers in the first 90 days of their license from having any teen-age passengers.

        “Teens in general think they're invincible,” said Trooper Chris Yeend of the Indiana State Police barracks in Versailles, “that nothing will happen to them. It's frustrating for me because they don't see the dangers they put themselves in.”

        There is no similar first-90-days law in Kentucky, but “Kentucky stipulates that there be reasonable prudence on safety,” said Fort Thomas Police Sgt. Wayne Turner. “But what catches them often is the seat-belt requirement for all front-seat passengers.”

        But no statistics or laws could have prepared the community for the Friday crash that claimed the lives of two 13-year-old Delhi Middle School students, Anna Destafano and Kelli Ridenour.

        “It's difficult to explain something like this,” Principal Patty Falk said Monday, “because even the adults don't understand it.”

        Asked what lessons the crash might teach, Ms. Falk hesitated.

        “Just love your kids,” she said. “Cherish every moment.”


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