The Young And The Reckless

2 FAST FOR THEIR OWN GOOD

The recent drag-racing movie 2 Fast 2 Furious, which targets a teen audience, is getting some backlash for causing a string of drag-racing deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that connecting fatal crashes to drag racing is difficult, but the year the first Fast and Furious movie came out, at least 135 people died in accidents from possible races – almost twice as many as the year before.

William Lacasse Jr. died in Miami on June 6 in an accident blamed on the release of the movie. Lacasse was pulling out of a gas station in his mother’s Corvette when two cars flashed their lights to challenge him to a race. The 17-year-old floored it and crashed into a concrete light pole.

In California, a 15-year-old boy playing basketball outside his home was mowed down by a 13-year-old drag racer. The California Highway Patrol has arrested cars for racing at more than 120 mph on I-280 in the San Francisco Bay area. Inside one car were ticket stubs for 2 Fast 2 Furious.

To help curb teen street-racing, Racers Against Street Racing is promoting legal alternatives to this dangerous activity. “Young drivers today are surrounded by media messages that depict street racing as glamorous and OK,” says Christopher Kersting, president and CEO of SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Association, which administers RASR.

The RASR program is being tested in some driver’s education classrooms. It addresses the realities of street racing with a graphic video and lessons about laws. Some racetracks around the country are trying to deter illegal racing by letting young drivers race their cars on the tracks.

How often do you put your life in the hands of an inexperienced driver who enjoys watching the demolition-style antics of Johnny Knoxville on MTV’s “Jackass” or who bobs his head to Eminem at a chest-pounding volume that drowns out all traffic sounds?

With about 4 million 16-year-olds in this country, you probably do it every day.

As truckers’ rate of involvement in fatal wrecks continues to drop, younger drivers are having fatal accidents more frequently. While truckers must submit to increasingly strict licensing and enforcement controls, some states have done little or nothing to enact measures known to reduce teen fatality rates.

Younger driver-related fatalities rose 2 percent in 2002 to 8,984 – well above the comparable level in truck accidents. In 2002, truck-related fatalities dropped 4.2 percent, to 4,897. It was the fifth straight year of decline, despite increases in other highway deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

During those five years, the number of teenage drivers who died in car crashes climbed, a fact that doesn’t surprise truckers.

“A teenager will fly by you like a bat out of hell,” says Swift driver John Wyatt of Tallahassee, Fla. “They need to learn to pay attention and to watch what they’re doing.”

“Sometimes four-wheelers and young drivers, they drive a little crazy,” says Miguel Figueroa of Houston, leased to SGT Motor Freight of Houston. “Sometimes they play like they’re racing.”

Studies show that lack of experience, combined with immaturity, is the main factor leading to the high number of teen fatalities on the road.

“Teenagers certainly have the most fatal car accidents, particularly male drivers,” says Loretta Worters, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. “Teens just don’t have enough experience behind the wheel.”

The institute, along with other safety organizations, endorses graduated driver license programs to help teenagers through the first year or two of driving, when they are more likely to have accidents.

GDL programs stress experience, preferably supervised. They teach teenagers that it takes only a few seconds of inattention or a few inches of miscalculation to lose control. The programs also address common teen driver problems: They are the least able to handle hazardous situations; they tend to drive more aggressively; they are easily distracted by loud music, food and cell phones; and in the worst cases, they use alcohol and drugs.

Add young passengers, and the risk doubles or triples. Night driving further multiplies the risk.

It’s speeding, often combined with other behaviors, that kills most teens. For example, a computer analysis of 60 fatal motor vehicle crashes involving drivers ages 14 to 19 in Knox County, Tenn., shows that speeding contributed to more than half of the wrecks. It was the second most frequent contributing factor next to running off the road or failing to stay in the proper lane. More than half the wrecks were single-vehicle crashes.

That was the case in Glenwood, Colo., in July when 18-year-old Cody Brickell tried to pass two vehicles across a double-yellow line on a two-lane road and lost control. The car flipped four times and burst into flames. He was not wearing a seat belt.

GDL programs address poor driving by requiring teens to go through stages of training before getting full driving privileges. These stages can include driving supervised by a parent, nighttime driving restrictions and passenger restrictions.

Six states – Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming – have no laws for any of four standard GDL provisions. The provisions, which are tracked by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, safety and insurance groups, are six-month holding periods, 30-50 hours of supervised driving, nighttime restrictions and passenger restrictions. Many other states have only one or two of the provisions.

Many of the almost 40 states that have defined GDL programs have seen significant safety improvements. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s preliminary conclusions on the effectiveness of GDL programs in four states found that they reduced accident rates as much as 83 percent.

Other states are moving in this direction. New York’s GDL program for teen drivers took effect Sept. 1. “In New York, injury crashes of drivers ages 16 to 17 are more than double that of 18 and older,” says Jennifer Morris, spokesperson for New York State’s Department of Motor Vehicles. “We hope that number will significantly decrease with the new program in place.”

Starting Sept. 13, Maine will have a new GDL system that has three steps instead of the existing two. The new law will include provisions for cell phone use, license suspension upon violations and passenger limitations. Maine loses one young person a week to motor vehicle crashes.

Private initiatives have joined the effort to improve teen highway safety. Earlier this year, Ashley Biersach, a teenage survivor of an accident in which two of her friends died and she lost a leg, teamed up with the non-profit driver education program Driver’s Edge and Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire. The program enables her to share her safe-driving message with other teens.

Parents, too, can take steps to improve their teens’ driving. For example, Road Safety International’s SafeForce, a $280 black box, monitors the car’s speed, seat belt use and tire traction and growls warnings when the driver is going too fast or turning too hard. Parents can check the box later and see just how fast their teenager was driving.

Many services allow parents, for a fee, to put a bumper sticker on the car that asks other drivers to use a toll-free number to report bad driving. And drug stores carry alcohol test kits that suspicious parents can use to verify teen drinking.

Such initiatives may help make teens safer drivers, but ultimately teens, as well as other four-wheelers, need more training, especially to share the road with trucks, truckers say.

“They’ll cut right in front of you and slam on the brakes,” says Richard Graham, an owner-operator leased to Prime. “They should all have to go to truck driving school.”

Training is the obvious hole in a system that stresses regulations so much, says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

“As a society, we make a decision that it’s appropriate for schools to teach kids about sex, to teach them about drugs,” he says, “but we make no special effort to make sure kids know how to drive cars safely and don’t kill themselves.”


RESTRICTIONS THAT WORK

Graduated driver license programs work because they address one or more factors known to make teens the worst drivers: inexperience, nighttime driving and additional teen passengers. Here are the statistics:

EXPERIENCE/SUPERVISION. Crash rates are the highest among teenagers immediately after they get their full-privilege licenses and begin driving without supervision. The risk of a crash during the first month of licensure is substantially higher than during any of the next 11 months. The likelihood of a citation is also higher during the first month. By the time beginners have been driving unsupervised for six months, their crash rates are 40 percent lower than when they first got their licenses, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

PASSENGERS. Add one young passenger to the car, and a 16-year-old driver faces a 39 percent higher risk of dying behind the wheel, according to a Johns Hopkins University study. That increases to 86 percent with two passengers. When there are three or more passengers, 16- and 17-year-olds roughly triple their risk of becoming a crash fatality.

NIGHTTIME. The rate of nighttime fatal crashes for 16- to 19-year-old male drivers was about four times the rate for 30- to 54-year-old males. The corresponding comparison for females is more than three times the rate, based on 1995-1996 statistics, according to the IIHS. Less than 4 percent of the miles driven by 16- and 17-year-olds nationally occur between midnight and 5 a.m., but 13 percent of the fatal teen crashes take place between these hours.


GRADUATED DRIVER LICENSING*

The GDL program is designed to phase young beginning drivers to full driving privileges through three stages: supervised learner’s period; intermediate license limiting unsupervised driving in high-risk situations; and then a license with full privileges. Key elements of the intermediate stage include limits on late-night unsupervised driving and transporting teen passengers. Certification that a learner’s permit holder has driven a minimum number of supervised hours is also an important part of the program. Many states have included license suspension penalties and seat-belt-use provisions in their programs.

LEARNER’S STAGE

  • SIX-MONTH HOLDING PERIOD: A novice driver must be supervised by an adult licensed driver at all times. If the learner remains conviction free for six months, he or she progresses to the intermediate stage.
  • SUPERVISED DRIVING PERIOD: A novice driver must receive 30 to 50 hours of behind-the-wheel training with an adult licensed driver.
  • INTERMEDIATE STAGE**

  • NIGHTTIME RESTRICTION: Because a majority of the crashes involving teens occur at night, unsupervised driving from 9 or 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. is prohibited.

  • PASSENGER RESTRICTION: Limits the number of teen-age passengers who ride with a teen driver driving without adult supervision.

    * Compiled by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health and safety groups and insurance companies and agents.
    ** While optimally this stage should continue until age 18, AHAS gives credit to states for having these two restrictions for any amount of time.


    FOUR-WHEELERS’ POOR JUDGMENT CAUSES MOST FATAL WRECKS WITH TRUCKS
    By Max Heine

    In fatal car-truck collisions, the four-wheeler is at fault in about 70 percent of the cases. Considering all car-truck wrecks, the car driver’s error is responsible in 75 percent of crashes, according to University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety studies.

    A study released this year by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis points to “the poor judgment of the driver of the passenger vehicle.” For example, the report notes 1,085 fatalities where a passenger vehicle sideswiped a large combination truck, but only 58 fatalities where the large truck sideswiped the other vehicle.

    Referring to this and other data, the report says, “This might suggest that the drivers of the passenger vehicles are somewhat more reckless or overconfident than the large truck drivers.”

    The most common errors that get four-wheelers into trouble around trucks, according to a 2002 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, are:

  • Failure to keep in lane or running off the road.
  • Failure to yield the right of way.
  • Driving too fast for conditions or above speed limit.
  • Failure to obey signs and signals.
  • Driver inattention.

    These actions were recorded for 80 percent of car drivers and 27 percent of truck drivers in two-vehicle truck accidents, based on federal statistics.

    The AAA Foundation study says two-car fatalities and car-truck fatalities are caused by almost all the same driver factors. However, four of 94 factors were more likely to cause a car-truck fatality:

  • Following improperly.
  • Driving with vision obscured by rain, snow, sand or dust.
  • Fatigued driving.
  • Improper lane changes.

    “Motorists don’t recognize that trucks behave very differently from cars, so they think trucks can stop on a dime and change lanes quickly,” says J. Peter Kissinger, CEO of the foundation. “In reality, trucks take a long time to stop and cannot whip from lane to lane.”


    CRACKING DOWN ON BAD DRIVING AROUND TRUCKS
    By Max Heine

    Four-wheelers’ irresponsible behavior around trucks is getting more attention. The Bush administration’s $247 billion highway reauthorization plan includes a proposal under the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program that would authorize funds to enforce traffic regulations against non-commercial motor vehicles when their behavior increases the risk of commercial motor vehicle accidents.

    Exactly how this will be implemented is hard to say, partly because of the nature of those offenses, says Dave Longo, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A radar gun can pinpoint a speeding violation, and there are tests to quantify the amount of alcohol or drugs a driver has consumed. But when it comes to a four-wheeler braking erratically or changing lanes improperly too close to trucks, there is no evidence for reckless driving short of an accident.

    “Other than a policeman seeing the behavior himself, how else can we do this?” Longo asks. One possibility is video cameras, which have helped catch drivers running stop signs or red lights. But trying to monitor thousands of highway miles with cameras isn’t currently feasible.

    The funding provision doesn’t suggest new regulations because FMCSA has no oversight for passenger vehicles. “We’re talking about working with our law enforcement partners in the states to focus on how we would direct those MCSAP funds at either enforcing current traffic laws or coming up with ones that would make it easier to cite passenger drivers for some kind of risky behavior while driving around a commercial vehicle,” Longo says.


    SHARING THE ROAD

    The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that four-wheelers adopt the following strategies:

  • Never change lanes abruptly around a truck.
  • Slow down to let trucks have the right of way.
  • Drive at a safe speed.
  • Stay alert to traffic signals and road conditions.
  • Use turn signals.
  • Avoid driving alongside or immediately behind a truck.
  • Never cut in front of a truck, especially when it may need to stop.

    SPEAK YOUR MIND

    If you want to get in touch with your state or U.S. representatives or senators, you can find contact information through www.congress.org.

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