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Crawling from the wreckage 

Awareness and education are the keys on preparing teenage drivers for their new journey

What if she'd been wearing her seat belt? Would she be alive today?

What if he hadn't been speeding? Would he have lost control?

Questions can be tormenting, especially when those questions follow a horrible tragedy. Parents, family members, and friends might find themselves asking any number of things, including, 'What could I have done to prevent this?"

Many of the questions that follow a death can't be answered, but in the case of prevention, something can be done. There are precautions that teen drivers, passengers, and parents can take to help minimize the chances that it's their child, sister, or friend whose life is cut short the next time there's a crash involving teens.

It's not public interest, media hype, or fantastic details that create the appearance of fatal teen crashes year after year. The threat to teen drivers and their passengers is real. Just look at the numbers.

Statistics show that teens crash more frequently than do adult drivers. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), traffic accidents are the leading cause of death of teenagers. As a group, teens average twice as many accidents as adults, while driving only half as many miles. This makes the teenage accident rate four times greater than that of adult drivers. A person younger than 18 is two times as likely to die in a fatal accident as is the average driver.

On the Central Coast, those statistics have surfaced in a string of fatal accidents, all within the last year. Looking at multiple fatalities alone, there've been at least four accidents involving a total of 16 teenagers and 10 deaths.

Almost exactly a year ago, on Dec. 7, 2004, Elijah Danell, 17; Joseph Castillo, 13; Darren Prater, 17; and Damian Coles, 16; were speeding down rain-slicked roads in Orcutt when Danell lost control of the vehicle. Coles is the only one who survived the crash.

In Arroyo Grande on July 20, Andre Quintanar Sr., 19, was charged with vehicular manslaughter after he swerved to avoid a small animal and was blindsided by another vehicle. Jessica Jacome, 18; Manuel Medina, 19; and Gabriel Gonzalez, 20; lost their lives.

On Halloween this year, Brice Fabing, 17; Michael Anthony Terrones, 16; and Darrell Solorio, 17; were speeding down East Central Avenue in Lompoc when their vehicle slammed into a pole. Fabing and Terrones died at the scene. Solorio is still in the hospital with extensive injuries.

When Louie James Leon swerved to avoid a parked car on Mahoney Road in Santa Maria and lost control of his vehicle on Nov. 19, none of his passengers were wearing seat belts. All of them were ejected from the car, and Danny Villareal, 15; David Villareal, 16; and Brittney Neeley, 15; died that day. Kayla Johnson, 15, is still in the hospital.

Law enforcement officials agree on the major contributing factors to crashes involving teen drivers: immaturity, inexperience on the road, speeding, the desire to show off for friends and to push a car to the limit, and not wearing seat belts. All of these contribute to the number of crashes and their severity.

Often, a minor obstacle in the road will cause a teen driver to panic, said Officer Gus Lopez, who's stationed in the Santa Maria offices of the California Highway Patrol (CHP). Teens don't have the experience to avoid obstacles safely, he explained, so they swerve and lose control of the car. Excess speeds can make the situation worse.

'Other kids can be a major distraction," Lopez explained. 'They're having fun, they're in a hurry, and the driver doesn't have the experience yet to deal with a panic situation if it happens."

According to the California DMV web site, nearly half of the drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 are convicted of a traffic violation during their first year of driving. Fifty percent of those violations are for speeding.

The Lompoc Police Department recently found that speeding was the main cause of the accident that caused the death of Fabing and Terrones, said Sgt. Mike Collins.

In his 25 years as a police officer, Sgt. Collins has witnessed the aftermath of a lot of crashes. He said that if he could give teens just a few tips, he would tell them to slow down and wear their seat belts.

'They drive beyond the capabilities of their vehicle," he said, 'and they think they're immortal, that it can't happen to them."

But it can happen, so precautions are necessary. A seat belt may have saved the lives of Terrones, Neeley, and both Villareals, all of whom were ejected from their vehicles during a collision. Statistics provided by the California DMV show that a person wearing a belt and shoulder harness is three or four times more likely to survive an accident than is someone not wearing a seat belt. Chances of survival are five times better if a person stays inside the car during an accident.

Consequences for drivers in multiple-fatality accidents are lasting - if the driver survives. Leon, 18, faces severe charges for his role in the multiple-fatality accident on Mahoney Road in Santa Maria.

Leon has been charged with three counts of felony vehicular manslaughter for allegedly causing the deaths of his stepsister Neeley and the Villareals. Mag Nicola, Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney, said that the difference between misdemeanor and felony manslaughter depends on the underlying conduct and the possibility of gross negligence.

Leon is also being charged with felony leaving the scene of the accident and misdemeanor driving without a license. Nicola said that the maximum sentence Leon could receive is six years prison time for each death. The minimum sentence is probation.

'We sympathize with all of the people in these types of accidents - even the driver - but that doesn't change our actions or our decisions," Nicola said.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Lynn Cutler will prosecute the case against Leon.

'In terms of someone this age, I've never tried a case against someone this young, up to his eyeballs like this," Cutler said.

'The big picture is that three young people are dead and one is injured due to his ... actions," Cutler said. 'It doesn't make him look good."

Traffic Sgt. Rico Flores of the Santa Maria Police Department handles all of the major accident investigations in Santa Maria. He said that vehicular manslaughter charges are generally filed against the driver in fatal accidents.

Provisions on licenses are an attempt to prevent some of the more common causes of teen accidents. These provisions apply until drivers are 18, and include a curfew. For the first year after a teen receives a license, he or she can't drive between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. During the first six months, teen drivers legally can't transport any passengers younger than 20.

Santa Maria's Officer Lopez said that those laws are changing on Jan. 1. The curfew will start an hour earlier, at 11 p.m., and new drivers will be forbidden to drive any passengers younger than 20 for the first year after they receive their license.

Whether the new laws will have any effect on the number of accidents is unknown. Sgt. Flores said that he thinks teens can benefit from more experience driving alone, but that education is the best tool to protect teens in the long run.

'I think if we pay better attention to education, that would help the most," he said. 'I think it also goes to the parents' responsibility to enforce rules and regulations."

Parents who are aware of common risks and who know how their kids behave can help make safer teen drivers, Lopez said. For example, if parents know that their child is a risk taker, he explained, they need to impose more restrictions.

Officer Lopez is part of a new program called Start Smart, designed for parents and young drivers. The program, which started in Sacramento, is going statewide in 2006. It will come to Santa Maria, though there's no exact date yet. People interested in attending should contact the CHP.

Lopez said that the CHP started Start Smart to help young drivers and their parents identify key factors associated with teenage traffic collisions.

The one-night class covers primary and associated collision factors, collision dynamics, seat belts, braking, stopping and reaction times, alcohol-related incidents, provisional licenses, and parental roles and responsibilities. Lopez said that the class would also show the latest version of 'Red Asphalt," which is, according to Lopez, the most gruesome of the 'Red Asphalt" videos. (See page 10 for a high-schooler's perspective on the video.)

Lopez said that the CHP surveyed high-school students, and that the majority said they wanted to see the actual results of fatal accidents. The video, which focuses on accidents involving young drivers, is intended to leave a lasting impact - and hopefully change teens' driving for the better.

In light of local law-enforcement agencies' commitment to teaching awareness, common sense, and making smart decisions - all qualities that could save teen lives - there's one more 'what if?" that the rest of the community needs to ask: What if it were possible to prevent accidents like the ones that have claimed so many local teen lives this year?

 

Sarah E. Thien is a staff writer for the Santa Maria Sun, New Times' sister paper. She can be reached at sthien@santamariasun.com.

 


 Tragedy on Tape

'Red Asphalt" has always been a title that leaves a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. Shown to high-school-age driver-education classes, 'Red Asphalt" has always been known to students as the movie with shots of twisted metal, shattered glass, and the viciously contorted bodies of unlucky teenagers doomed to be added to an ever-growing list of fatal statistics.

'Red Asphalt V" is the most recent edition of the aptly named video, scheduled to be available at safety classes in 2006.

Having never actually seen any of the 'Red Asphalt" films - though aware of the general concept, and having heard that the fifth installment was the goriest to date - I was a tad apprehensive when I was asked to watch 'Red Asphalt V" for this story.

The thing is, I'm a junior at Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Maria. Last year, when I was a sophomore, two Righetti students and one Orcutt Junior High student died in a car accident. Another Righetti student was lucky enough to walk away from the crash. Though nobody at school really discusses the boys who died - or the pain of their deaths - anymore, the thought still hangs heavy over all of our heads.

I enrolled in a driver-education class last year for the first semester. During the second semester, I got my driving permit. By the beginning of this school year, in September, I was a licensed driver.

In light of my current driving status, the Sun staff asked me to view an advance copy of 'Red Asphalt V" with a few of my friends. I'm the only one in my circle who's been driving as long as I have. All the rest are weeks or months away from their licenses

'Red Asphalt V" starts out as a very typical driving-awareness film. A teenager - who tries to look, act, and talk like many of the kids at my school - opens the video with a healthy dose of statistics involving teenage drivers. I've heard such numbers ad nauseum.

The film then shifts to interviews with real people, who relive the deaths of friends or family members, immediately followed by pictures of each victim's twisted corpse.

I had been told that the previous 'Red Asphalt" movies stayed a distance from the crashes - maybe behind the yellow tape. 'Red Asphalt V" takes viewers right up to the cars, stands over the bodies, and then zooms in.

During an interview with the father of an 18-year-old, my friend John Bravo, a 16-year-old planning to get his license this month, commented that the man looked like the father of a friend of ours.

'These people actually look like people," said my friend, Chris Klippel, another as-of-now unlicensed 16-year-old.

There's something very grim about seeing people who actually look like people I know, talk like people I know, and dress like people I know reminiscing over lost friends - or even pinned inside the wreckage of cars just like the cars I see parked every day in the senior lot.

Last week, I went out to the memorial of the three Santa Maria High School students who recently died on Mahoney Road. At one boy's cross, symbolizing his grave, were bags of spicy Cheetos, placed there by his friends who knew what he liked.

I like spicy Cheetos, too.

I never saw 'Red Asphalt" in my driver-education class. I'm not even sure whether my school shows it or not. If not, maybe it should. Maybe the students from Righetti, or Santa Maria High, or all over the country would have acted differently if they'd seen the movie. Maybe they had seen the movie. Who can really say?

With behind-the-wheel driver training no longer available in high schools and rumors haunting Righetti that driver-education classes might be on the way out, I can't see how the statistics fueled by kids like me can ever change for the better.


Drivers ed

There are two things teens must do before they get their driver's permit at age 15 1/2. They must complete a 30-hour SRI (state required instruction) course, and a six-hour professional driving training course. Before they get their license at 16, they must spend 50 hours behind the wheel with their parents. And that is something that concerns Dale Overland, who has been teaching driver's ed at San Luis Obispo High School for the past 10 years.

'Kids now have to have 50 hours behind the wheel with their parents. Whether or not it's being done I don't know," Overland told New Times.

'Parents have to sign a form that says they have. Who's monitoring? But if the kids do put in 50, that's a lot of practice, and that's a good thing if that's being done."

SLO High is one of many throughout the state that teaches freshmen and sophomores the rules of the road.

'We take the DMV handbook and go through it page by page," Overland said. 'We have a whole series of lessons designed around this book." The class also uses computers for simulated driving exercises. And Overland shows the proverbial driver education films, like 'Red Asphalt," but his class no longer features what used to be standard fare; the simulated accident scenes where fake blood and crashed cars took center stage.

Some students prefer to take the course instead online for a fee of $100.

'I think the program needs to be done," Overland believes, whether it's free in the classroom or for a price at home. 'The state has recognized there's a problem because they have changed the laws over the last few years."

Asked why new driving teens are apt to crash, Overland said there are two things:

'One I think is the amount of supervised practice. The other thing with kids is that they're into multitasking. They train themselves to do four or five things at once," Overland said. 'Typically what happens a lot when you investigate a lot of these accidents is that kids are trying to change the channel on the radio or find the right song on their CD or talk to the person in the backseat while talking on their cell phone. It's hard enough to do that of you're an experienced driver but if you're an inexperienced driver and your trying to do those things that's just a recipe for disaster."

Overland added not wearing seat belts plays a big part in fatalities, as does that air of invincibility that teenagers feel.

One bright spot in all this - learning how to drive can actually bring teens and their parents closer to one another, and not just by driving in the same car together for 50 hours. Overland said kids have to be in partnership with their parents.

'Parents have to sign off, they gotta pay for insurance, maybe even a car. For some parents, it's like getting their kids back," he said.

'Parents can dangle that over their heads. Plus all they have to do is call the DMV and say, ‘Take my kid's license away until he's 18.'" For any or no reason at all.

Buckle up, kids, and keep your eyes on the road.

 

-King Harris


Don't be the next statistic

These driving tips come straight from police officers and law enforcement officials who've seen it all. They know what can happen, and they know what can save your life. Some of the tips may seem like no-brainers, but fatality statistics show that even the easiest guidelines get overlooked - and that's when accidents happen.

- Wear your seat belt. Always.

- Don't let your friends distract you.

- Stay off your cell phone.

- Pay attention to speed limits; you're not in that big of a hurry.

- Be aware of your surroundings.

- Think ahead about what you would do if something were blocking your path.

- Don't drink and drive.

- Don't think it can't happen to you.


The parent factor

While it's a teen's job to study driver's education and practice safe driving techniques, parents play a critical role. Not only are parents responsible for honestly signing driving logs, but they also have to demonstrate safe driving practices, said Cheryle Morgan of Precision Driving School.

Teens are required to log 50 hours of driving time with their parents," said Morgan. 'It's really up to the parents if they want to be honest or not with the DMV," she said.

Beyond the logging of driving times, they're also more importantly showing teenagers how to drive safely.

'Sometime it's hard for the students when the instructors tell them to drive a certain way and their parents are driving a different way," she said. 'It's very sad and it can be very hard."

Morgan says she encourages driving students to talk to confront their parents if they're driving poorly. 'Even if you come down on your parents, so be it!"

-John Peabody

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