Article about teen driving deaths

This article was published on June 3, 2001 by the News and Observer out of Raleigh, NC.

Despite laws, traffic accidents still cause most teen deaths


Teenagers and fast cars have been a deadly mix since American youth discovered the romance of wheels, the lure of drive-ins and the art of cruising.

In recent years, researchers have documented just how dangerous a combination it is: Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers, followed by suicide and homicide.

"It's horrible, and it happens hundreds of times over and over again all across the country," said Stephanie Faul, communications director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington, D.C. "Every parent needs to realize the most dangerous thing your child does is drive or ride in a car."

It happened again this past Wednesday night.

Four teenagers celebrating the end of school died when their sports car skidded across the median on Interstate 540 in North Raleigh and slammed into an oncoming van. Killed in the crash were Jamie Brewer, 17; David "Mike" Smith, 17; Matthew Yurcak, 17; and the driver, Bryan Reaves, 18. Police said Reaves might have been driving his mother's black 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder convertible as fast as 105 mph when he lost control and crashed into a van, killing all four of the Raleigh high school students in the car.

If nothing else, the tragedy emphasized the rueful fact that sometimes even if they do all the right things, parents can't keep their children safe all the time.

Less than a month ago, Yurcak was ferrying several friends when he drove into the path of another car and totaled his 1991 Ford Explorer.

No one was injured, but his parents decided that Matt would take a break from driving. Gary and Susan Yurcak bought him a cellular phone, insisted that he let them know where he was going and started looking for a defensive-driving course for him.

When Matt died in the back seat of Reaves' car, he hadn't driven since his wreck. His mother dropped him off at the Starbucks where he met up with friends that night.

But as they stood at the edge of the freeway Wednesday night, looking at the crushed car where Matt's body was trapped, they knew their efforts had not been enough.

"We always worried," Gary Yurcak said. "But it's funny, we worried more when he was driving."

The Yurcaks' 14-year-old daughter, Meredith, is signed up to get her learner's permit next year, but Susan Yurcak said she's not sure now if she can watch her remaining child get behind the wheel.

Finding a route to safety

Most people agree that laws can go only so far in controlling human behavior, but safety experts point to some tools that have begun to work. North Carolina, for example, has reduced accidents by restricting teenagers' driving privileges. Some people favor going even further by limiting the number of passengers teenagers can carry.

In late 1998, North Carolina became the second state in the country to impose a graduated driver's license law, which raised the age that teens can get a license to 16 1/2 and barred them from driving without adult supervision at night.

Prior to the law, one out of every four 16-year-olds in the state got into traffic collisions during their first year of driving. There has been dramatic improvement in the two years the law has been in effect, according to the first study of its impact, released last year.

In 1999, 320 16-year-old drivers got into fatal and serious-injury crashes, a 29 percent drop from the 449 in 1997. Crashes during daytime hours -- when a 16-year-old can drive unsupervised -- decreased 22 percent, while nighttime crashes dropped 47 percent, according to the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.

Center researchers say it still is too early to fully measure the law's impact because the first teenagers are still making their way through the three-step licensing system, which gradually advances teens from a limited learner's permit to a provisional license to a full driver's license.

But they say the numbers so far are encouraging, and other states have followed suit. Now 33 states have graduated driver's license laws.

"There's just absolutely no doubt that the program has produced huge benefits in comparison with anything else that's ever been done to reduce traffic accidents," UNC researcher Bob Foss said. "It's not a panacea, but by far it's the best thing we've ever seen."

Foss and some other traffic-safety researchers around the country think it might be time to go a step further and limit the number of passengers in an unsupervised teenager's car. A study by Johns Hopkins University last year found that the risk of fatal injury to 16- and 17-year-old drivers with three or more passengers is nearly triple that of a lone driver of the same age.

Seventeen states now have laws restricting the number of passengers.

"This crash, as well as others we've seen this year, continue to underline the high risks that the Hopkins' study identified," Foss said. "It's something the legislature probably needs to be thinking about."

Driver's ed not enough

The Yurcaks say they would favor such a law, but they also think teenagers are allowed to drive too early and don't get enough training before they do.

Allan Williams, chief scientist for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., says the graduated license and passenger restrictions might provide better protection than training.

"You don't get a lot out of driver education except teaching young people basic driving skills," Williams said. "It's hard to turn very young, very inexperienced drivers into safe, defensive drivers. The graduated programs try to keep them out of risky situations and protect them while they're learning."

Driver's education courses mark the first time behind the wheel for many teens. Officials with Wake County schools, who put 8,000 students a year through the 36-hour course, said every deadly accident leaves them wondering what more they can do.

Students still see films of wreck scenes designed to scare them into driving safely. They spend six hours behind the wheel, navigating interstates and city streets. Instructors talk about defensive driving and give stern warnings about speeding and drunken driving, said Bobby Guthrie, Wake's senior administrator for driver education.

But there are some situations schools cannot teach: how to handle a car at 100 mph or drive with three people in the back seat raising a ruckus.

"There's no doubt that there's going to be some things that kids are going to want to do," Guthrie said. "Those circumstances we cannot practice. The only thing we can do is talk about them."

Driving instructors agreed that a few hours of classes are not enough to prepare teens for the highways. They said parents should talk to their children's instructors about which skills they need to practice, then spend hours watching them drive before turning them loose.

The thrill of speed

Students may be forced to watch the gory driver's education movies, but many of them are playing a private movie in their minds: themselves behind the wheel with the wide-open road ahead.

"We're not thinking in terms of the future," said Mary Sue Zaytoun, 15, a Cardinal Gibbons High School freshman. "We're just thinking in terms of 'That could never happen to me.' "

She has had her learner's permit for a month, and she says she can't wait to be a full-fledged driver. She admits that teenagers tend to get distracted when they're behind the wheel and often drive too fast. Still, she doesn't want to see any more restrictions that would stand in the way of her getting a license.

Ryan Keziah, 18, a Leesville Road senior, said he and most kids he knows drive fast, and they're not likely to slow down.

"High-schoolers, they'll drive the way they want to no matter what, just because they're high-schoolers and they want to rebel," he said.

Even the most cautious teenagers are vulnerable to someone's spilt-second mistake. Dorothy Welch said her daughter, Jamie, had refused to get her learner's permit because she was afraid of being in an accident.

"She was afraid to drive, and she was afraid of speed," Welch said. "She was afraid she would hurt someone else. That was like her worst fear."

When the call came Wednesday night, Welch thought her daughter was down the street eating pizza with her best friend. But then the friend was on the cellular phone, hysterical and staring at the crumpled sports car and the tangled bodies of her friends.

"She was standing there with Jamie," Welch recounted. "I said, 'Well, talk to her -- is she alive?' She said, 'It's really, really bad.' "

A few hours later, Welch and the other parents were identifying their children's bodies. There was nothing else they could do to protect them.


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