Thursday, August 29, 2002

Car crashes claim 7 in 14 days

Are tougher licensing rules helping curb the carnage?

By Tom O'Neill,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] A group of sophomores from Lebanon High School pauses Wednesday at the site where Brandi Cook and Katie Aylor were killed Tuesday.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Three car crashes in 14 days. Seven teens dead.

        Tragedy struck Tuesday in the communities of Lebanon and Crittenden, Ky., and on Aug. 13 in Goshen.

        Young lives ended in crashes, leaving family, friends, teachers and pastors full of pain.

        Yet aspects of all three crashes fit patterns that show teen drivers are far more dangerous on the road than their adult counterparts. Speed may be a factor in all three cases and five of the dead teens were not wearing seatbelts, authorities say.

        Enquirer research into fatal teen crashes during the 1990s found that the greatest dangers are after school, and at the beginning and end of the school year.

        “They've been in school all day. What does that car represent? Freedom,” Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Mike Sanders of the Lebanon post said Wednesday.

        “Boom, hit the gas,” he said, “we're out of here.”

        Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana are among 17 states that in recent years have adopted a “graduated license” system, in which hours of the day a teen can drive and the number of passengers allowed, are limited.

        The amount of time behind the wheel needed for a “full” license has increased.

        But the horrendous teen wrecks here in the past two weeks beg the question: Are all these new measures working?

        Seventeen-year-old Garrett Peterson of Crittenden, a Walton-Verona student, was killed Tuesday on U.S. 25 near Walton when he lost control on a curve at 3:35 p.m. and hit an oncoming truck, authorities say.

        About 90 minutes later, 16-year-old friends and Lebanon High classmates Brandi Cook and Katie Aylor were killed when Brandi also lost control on a curve, overcorrected and smashed headlong into an oncoming Mack truck in Turtlecreek Township, police say.

        Initial police investigations indicate Brandi and Garrett were:

        Driving too fast for road conditions. It was drizzling in Walton when Garrett's accident took place.

Brandi Cook
Brandi Cook
Katie Aylor
Katie Aylor
        Inattentive to the point that they crossed the center line while negotiating curves on suburban roads. Brandi hit a berm on the right side of the road before crossing over into oncoming traffic, police say.

        At Lebanon High on Wednesday, students wrote emotionally wrenching messages to the girls on memorial posters.

        “See you in heaven,” said one.

        Meanwhile, Clinton County Prosecutor William Peele says the investigation continues into the one-car crash two weeks ago on a rural road that left four Goshen High teens dead.

        But, he says, “I can say that someone at some point is going to be charged.”

        Two Goshen classmates survived: the driver and front-seat passenger, both of whom were wearing seatbelts.

        Mr. Peele declined to say what charges either teen might face or why.

        The back-seat passengers all died: Lester Smith, 16, of Loveland; Jennifer McRoberts, 16, of Goshen, Natasha Schnelle, 17, of Pleasant Plain and Jesse King, 16, of Loveland.

        Back in Lebanon, 16-year-old Megan Hawley, a junior at Lebanon High, said Oregonia Road — where Brandi and Katie were killed — is traveled frequently by students, including her.

[photo] Driving student Sean Lancaster works on parking with instructor Rich Sonnenberg.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        “We've all driven it, and there's a lot of speeding there,” Megan said. “It's going to be hard to go past there. I need to see the scene myself. I still think it's not true. I'm going to the scene with a teacher.”

        An Enquirer analysis of driving records for Hamilton, Clermont, Butler and Warren counties from 1995 through 1999, showed that the overwhelming majority of fatal crashes involving young drivers occurred in suburban or rural, often winding, roads.

        Unsafe speed was a contributing factor in 16 percent of all fatal crashes. For drivers under 21, the rate jumped to 30 percent.

        Young drivers were far less likely to be exonerated and far more likely to have a high number of passengers.

        The most common months for fatal crashes involving young drivers were June and September.

        The most frequent four-hour time period in which crashes occurred was noon to 4 p.m., after school.

        And while drivers under 21 represent only about 8 percent of registered drivers, the percentage involved in fatal crashes rises dramatically: 21 percent in Clermont County, 16 percent in both Butler and Warren counties, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

        During the same five-year period, the number of fatal crashes among adults dropped significantly in the Tristate. Experts typically cite increased use of seatbelts, tougher penalties for drunken drivers and public awareness campaigns.

   Don't drink and drive, and don't ride with anyone who has been drinking. Call parents or friends to take you home if you need a ride.
   Obey all speed limits. Going too fast is a main cause of teen crashes.
   Don't talk on a car phone, put on make-up, comb your hair or eat while driving.
   Don't blast the radio. You might miss hearing a siren or horn that could warn you of possible trouble.
   Don't fiddle with the radio or CD players. Even the slightest distraction can cause an accident.
   When driving to a new place, get complete directions before you go. Figure out what exits you need to take before hand.
   Always wear seat belts.
   Never try to fit more people in the car than you have seatbelts for them to use.
   Don't take drugs or drive if you've taken any. Don't ride with anyone who has been using drugs. Even some over-the-counter rugs make you drowsy. Check labels for warnings.
   Make sure the windshield is clean.
   When the light turns green, make sure the intersection clears before you go.
        Marge Schaim is a member of the Hamilton County Health Department's traffic safety committee, and owner of the AAAA International Driving School. It annually instructs about 2,000 young drivers, more than any other driving school.

        She's a big supporter of the graduated license system for youths, but is dismayed by the statistics.

        “It's the inattention,” she said. “After school, you see more passengers (in one car) and that's a factor.”

        Education efforts for teen drivers include speaking appearances by teen drivers who caused fatal crashes.

        Some schools also have allowed the wrecked cars to be displayed on school grounds as a stark reminder, but Lt. Sanders said too many school officials are unwilling to do so.

        Fatal crashes involving teen drivers used to have the same impact as other fatals on Lt. Sanders, who lives about five miles from the Clinton County crash that killed four teens from Goshen High. Now, the oldest of his three children is 13.

        “It's changed my perspective,” he said.

        “They think they're invincible.”

        Contributing: Sue Kiesewetter and Jim Hannah.

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