It started out as a double date like many others.
But it ended in tragedy.
Two teenage girls and their teenage boyfriends made plans to see a drive-in movie on a summer night and have hamburgers and fries afterwards.
One of the girls owned a new Mustang convertible that her mother had bought her for her 16th birthday. She let her boyfriend drive.
The boy had never driven a Mustang, an automobile with surging power up front and lightweight in the rear.
He decided to pass a pickup truck parked by the side of the road, maybe out of gas or maybe needing a boost.
In an instant, another vehicle seemingly appeared out of nowhere, throwing high-beam headlights in his direction. The boy swerved, running off the road and plunging over a 50-foot embankment.
One girl, the vehicle’s owner, was thrown out, while the car rolled over four times. She allegedly suffered a broken neck and was pronounced dead at the scene.
Graduation and prom would have to wait. Forever.
Others in the car suffered a few broken bones and some serious lacerations. Nothing life-threatening, though.
As for the driver, he simply walked away under his own power. The other couple was transported by ambulance to the nearest hospital. They were released a few days later.
All three were back in school within a week after the tragic mishap.
The night out for a movie and a hamburger ended inunspeakable grief.
The unfortunate mom tried to reconcile herself with her sorrow. But every time she looked at her daughter’s prom gown hanging unworn on the girl’s bedroom door, she cried.
These things just happen, she tried to console herself. But always to someone else. Not to us.
To many who knew the victims, the crash seemed like a cruel stroke of fate, a freak tragedy beyond anyone’s control. But it fit a common formula for teen deaths on USA’s roadways.
Put a 16-year-old boy or girl at the wheel of an automobile and send them out at night. Finally, let them travel fast, just to see what the vehicle will do on the open road. Seatbelts unbuckled.
Those common factors emerged in a study that examined deadly crashes involving 16- to 19-year-old drivers on the highway, especially at night, with more than two occupants in the car.
Some 3,500 teenagers died in teen-driven vehicles in the USA last year—a death toll topping that of any disease or injury for teens. The South proved to be the deadliest region of all.
More than two-thirds of fatal single-vehicle teen crashes involved nighttime driving or at least one passenger aged 16 to 19.
Nearly three-fourths of the drivers were male. And 16-year-old drivers were riskiest of all. Their rate of involvement in fatal crashes was nearly five times that of drivers ages 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Meanwhile, new medical research helps explain why. The part of the brain that weighs risks and controls impulsive behavior isn’t fully developed until about age 25, according to the National Institute of Health.
Some state legislators and safety activists question whether 16-year-olds should be licensed to drive.
Sixteen-year-olds are far worse drivers than 17-, 18-, or 19-year-olds, statistics show. Tellingly, New Jersey, which has long barred 16-year-olds from having an unrestricted driver’s license, for years has had one of the lowest teen fatality rates in the country.
Other jurisdictions, too, have found the only sure way to cut the teen death total is to limit unsupervised driving by 16-year-olds. Seven states and the District of Columbia don’t give unrestricted licenses to anyone under 18. In Britain and Germany, teens can’t drive until ages 17 and 18, respectively.
On an average day in the USA, 10 teenagers are killed in teen-driven vehicles. Some days are far worse. Crashes that occurred on one of the deadliest days of 2003—Nov. 1—killed 26 teens.
Horrific as teenage deaths are, the collective response from their families is often one of grim acceptance. Jeffrey Runge, a former emergency room doctor who’s now head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, shudders to recall how some parents reacted to hearing their teens had just died in a crash.
“It was amazing how many people would say, ‘I guess it was just his time.’” Runge says.
The physician acknowledges that safety advocates here failed to adequately publicize what’s known about why teens die in crashes. State laws often don’t restrict behavior that’s linked to many teen fatalities.
“It looks like teens are just dying to drive,” Runge says, in way of trying to rationalize America’s senseless teen deaths on the highways. “And when they drive at night with other teens in the car, they’re taking their lives into their own hands.”
Top o’ the morning!