Sunday, July 25, 2004

Too fast, too young


Speed a factor in 75% of teen-involved deaths

By Janice Morse
Enquirer staff writer

[photo]
Claudia Mann's son, Justin Lewis, was killed street racing in November.
The Enquirer/SARAH CONARD

[photo]
Claudia Mann looks at the Toyota Corolla her son was driving when he died.
The Enquirer/SARAH CONARD
Justin Lewis' car wasn't built for speed.

But the Butler County teen still drove his 1995 Toyota Corolla the way he lived: fast and furious, despite his parents' efforts to hold him back.

While street-racing with another vehicle last fall, the Corolla topped 84 mph in a 55-mph zone and crashed. The impact catapulted Lewis' unbelted body 50 feet. His head slammed into the pavement. He was dead at 17.

Staring at the wrecked Corolla in a Middletown junkyard recently, Lewis' mother, Claudia Mann, said: "There's a lot of 'Justin Lewis cars' in these lots in our area. ... It was the last car in the world that you would think you'd want to go racing in; that was why we bought it for him. But it just shows you don't have to have a souped-up car to drive fast."

Authorities say young drivers are involved in illegal street-racing more often than parents know and more often than available statistics show. Last year, more juveniles went to court on racing charges than in 2000. And high tech equipment has enabled teens and young adults to dramatically boost the speed of their cars.

Officials also say street racing is the extreme symptom of a larger problem: speeding.

Last week in Westwood, Zachery Costa, an 18-year-old whose license was suspended after repeated speeding violations, was charged with zooming his tricked-out Honda past a car, striking and killing pedestrian Gloria Valles.

She was at least the 28th person killed in crashes involving teens from Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati this year.

Nationally, about one-third of fatal crashes are speed-related.

In Greater Cincinnati, speed has been a factor in 75 percent of this year's teen-involved traffic fatalities, an Enquirer analysis shows.

"That is astounding," said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of safety groups in Washington, D.C.

"Cincinnati is probably not the only place where it's happening, but nobody collects that data," she said. "You've got young people who are almost addicted to speed, and I'm feeling like it's a national trend, because I keep hearing about it."

'Prescription for death'

While most American motorists admit they speed, authorities say driving fast is especially dangerous for young, inexperienced drivers. Speeding gives drivers less time to react to hazards and avoid crashes.

MODIFICATIONS
Area mechanics and car enthusiasts point to several popular modifications.

• Nitrous-oxide kit: A tank that looks like a fire extinguisher is connected with tubing leading to the engine's combustion chambers. When activated with a button, the non-toxic gas releases oxygen molecules that maximize an engine's fuel efficiency and immediately burst the car's speed. Cost: $500 to $2,000 for the system.

• Superchargers, turbochargers: Force more air into the motor, increasing fuel capacity and horsepower. Can boost power by more than 40 percent. Turbochargers get their power from the exhaust system. Superchargers bolt onto the engine and are belt-driven. Cost: $2,800-$4,300.

• Cold-air induction system: Decreases temperature of incoming air by about 10 degrees and increases horsepower by about 1 percent. Cost: $200-$300.

• Computer chips: Can be used to change factory specifications on fuel flow, fuel delivery and ignition timing - making a car go fast. Some allow users to custom-write a program. Cost starts at $130.

• Laptop computer: With specialized software, can be used to tap into the car's electronic control module, the "brain" of a car's fuel and air-management systems. Can help user decide optimum time to deploy nitrous oxide.

SMART PARENTS
Officials offer high-tech and low-tech options for parents looking to monitor their teens' driving.

• Think black box: These devices can record how fast and how often a car speeds. Some use global-positioning satellites to show a vehicle's location and speed and can call a parent's cell phone.

Cost: $140-$1,000+. Available at some retail stores, locally through Blue Ash's RACO Industries, www.trackmyvehicle.com, and other online companies.

• How's my driving?: Bumper stickers that ask other drivers to report good or bad driving to a company that passes that information along to a teen's parents. Cost varies, depending on services offered, from $19.95 to $69.95 for a year's membership. Available through several companies, including www.gogetmom.com, www.tell-my-mom.com, www.safetycalls.com, www.dadseyes.com.

• Yank the license: Even if a teen doesn't break the law, a parent who has co-signed for a teen's driver's license has the power to get it legally revoked, either through the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles or the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

The court's braking systemOhio and Kentucky laws on speed and racing:

RACING LAWS
• It is illegal to drive at speeds too fast or too slow for conditions, to travel too fast to stop before hitting another vehicle or to travel at speeds above posted limits. The maximum legal speed is 65 mph on interstate highways and divided freeways.

• Penalties for violations increase based on how much the violator exceeded the speed limit.

The law on street racing

• Both states outlawed racing in the late 1950s.

• Kentucky law says simply: "No person shall engage upon any street or highway in motor-vehicle racing, drag racing or any other form of competition involving motor vehicles." First-time offenders can be fined up to $200 and/or sentenced to 30 days in jail. The penalty can double for a subsequent offense in a five-year period, and the car can be seized.

• Ohio law requires that officers prove two vehicles tried to outdistance each other while traveling side-by-side from a starting point to an ending point. Rapid acceleration of two side-by-side vehicles to exceed the speed limit also constitutes street racing. Anyone helping racers can be charged. Offenders can face up to a $1,000 fine and jail for up to six months and a mandatory driver's-license suspension for 30 days to a year.

While the number of teens ticketed for speeding has remained relatively constant in recent years, authorities in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties have ticketed an increasing number of teens for illegal street racing. In 2000, six teens went to area juvenile courts on that charge. By last year, the number had jumped to 30 - a result of more street races and more officers paying attention, police say.

Officers also have noticed an increase in young drivers adding high-tech equipment designed to rapidly boost their vehicles to speeds that they and their cars may not be able to handle.

"When you put together young drivers, no seat belts, souped-up cars and speeds of 90 or 100 miles an hour, it's just a prescription for death," says Ohio Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester.

Cates, who led a series of public meetings this spring seeking ideas to prevent fatal teen crashes, said he wants to regulate sales of speed-enhancing devices.

He also advocates a public-information campaign to counteract "speed-is-cool" messages bombarding young people in movies, TV commercials and video games.

Since January, five teens have been killed in Northern Kentucky traffic crashes; two adults and 21 teens from Greater Cincinnati have been killed in 20 teen-involved crashes. Nearly all included as factors speed, alcohol and/or failure to wear seat belts.

But, speed was the most frequent, playing a role in at least 15 of the 20 Greater Cincinnati fatal crashes. And, in six crashes where speed estimates were available, speeds averaged 37 mph above the posted limit.

"That's highly excessive, and it truly represents what the problem is," Stone said. "And anyone who drives that fast clearly has a disregard for safety, and clearly doesn't understand how long it takes to stop a car at those speeds."

Considering reaction and breaking time, a car traveling 50 mph can stop in 268 feet. But at 70 mph the car would travel 464 feet before stopping, federal officials calculate.

Yet, Stone points out, most vehicles are capable of exceeding highway speeds without extra equipment.

Last month, a 16-year-old Trenton boy, driving an unmodified pickup truck, was ticketed for going 105 mph in Monroe. Police reports say he was racing.

When the teen's father came to get the truck, "He said he bought a 'For Sale' sign on his way to the police department," said Monroe Police Sgt. Jeff Bowling. "He said they were leery about buying this truck - and he had told his son: 'The first ticket, and the truck's gone.'"

Modified for speed

Jesse Ramirez, 19, of Middletown, owns an eye-catching 2000 Mustang GT he can't legally drive. He said his driver's license was suspended for speeding away from police, but fast cars remain his passion.

Ramirez's wife, Amy, 17, chauffeurs him in the car now. After he bought it for $18,000, Ramirez shelled out another $3,000 for a custom paint job plus $4,000 to soup up the engine.

"I think cops are getting too strict," he said. "It's making more people do it. They just want to do it because they know they ain't supposed to be doing it."

No matter what police do, they won't be able to stop racing entirely, Ramirez said.

"I've been around it so long,'' he said. "It's really kind of in my blood. I can't get away from it."

While many parents are clueless about engine modifications, others knowingly help their kids add parts to crank up their cars' speeds.

"What's shocked the hell out of me the most is that a lot of these parents know that their kids have this stuff on their cars - and they're OK with it," said Butler County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Richard K. Jones. "It's like saying: 'Here are the keys to this rocket. Go drive this rocket 140 miles an hour - and it's OK.'"

Police are concerned that young motorists who invest big bucks in speed modifications rarely spend a penny to upgrade the chassis, steering, suspension, braking and other vital systems - putting themselves and other motorists at great risk for serious injury or death.

While American-made "muscle cars" of decades past were equipped with big engines and thick metal chassis, the newer "pocket rockets" are typically smaller, four-cylinder imports made of thin metal sheeting and plastic parts that offer little protection in high-speed crashes.

Although newer cars are outfitted with more safety features, extreme speeds render them ineffective.

"Air bags and seat belts, they will save your life. But they are meant to save your life at normal highway speeds," said Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Michael Black. "When a car that small gets into a high-speed collision, it's a death trap."

Middletown Police Detective Jerry Mossman, who recalls the heyday of muscle cars, said a pair of fatalities involving small, souped-up imports changed his perspective this year. "The fastest I ever heard of muscle cars going was 140, 150. Now I'm hearing about cars doing 180, if not higher," he said. "I've learned there is a whole new realm of speeds these cars can reach. They're lighter, so they attain those speeds quicker than the muscle cars."

Authorities don't track how many speed-modified cars are involved in fatal or serious crashes. They also can't say how often street-racing happens or ends in a crash.

Police in some areas are hearing more street-racing allegations. So they're stepping up enforcement.

Police in Middletown, halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati along Interstate 75, sometimes receive a half-dozen reports of street-racing in a single night. They say hundreds or even thousands of dollars are being wagered on the races.

Officers have a hard time snaring racers, partly because the hopped-up cars are so fast - and partly because today's racers monitor police radios with scanners and use walkie-talkies to avoid being caught.

"One of these kids told me: 'You guys are never going to stop drag-racing, and I'll never stop. You're going to pull my dead body from a burning car one night,'" said Middletown officer John Hovell.

West Chester Police Sgt. Barry Walker said young drivers, racing or not, tend to test their cars' capabilities:

"Every car and every driver has a point at which they're going to lose control. They keep pushing the limits until one final time when they push what they or their cars can do - and they run out of luck," he said.

Luck ran out

For 17-year-old Justin Lewis, that day came after police repeatedly stopped him for traffic violations and let him go without ticketing him. He outlined three such incidents in an Oct. 20 journal entry and marveled: "My luck has been shot through the roof."

Eighteen days later, Lewis was killed in a high-speed crash.

On Nov. 7, Lewis had arrived early for classes at Lakota West High School and was upset over girl troubles.

Using his cell phone, Lewis text-messaged friends, saying he was leaving school to blow off steam.

At 8:17 a.m., his friends got another text message: "I just topped out my Corolla. I'm on my way back."

By 8:20, Lewis had wrecked the Corolla after racing with a pickup truck on Union Centre Boulevard. A witness said he thought both vehicles exceeded 100 mph.

After Lewis died, his mom discovered the journal entry. She said she wished police had ticketed her son. If so, Claudia Mann said she would have forbidden him from driving, as she did after his first and only speeding citation in May 2003.

But Mann knows her son's choices in his final three minutes killed him.

Now, she tells anyone and everyone who will listen:

"Fast and furious is fatal."

E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com




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