Curbing unsafe teen driving

The open road, friends, and summer vacation are a dreamlike combination. However, with concern over unsafe teen driving increasing at every turn, it seems to be a more dangerous combination as the days go by.

Fatal teen driving accidents in the United States increased by more than 10% from 2014 to 2015, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The more notable teen car accidents in Easton and Redding in the last two years are starting to make this problem hit close to home.

While there may not have been a direct increase in teen driving accidents in the two communities in recent years, “There have been two crashes which have resulted in serious injuries and which have drawn a great deal of attention, thus the perception that there has been,” said Redding Police Chief Douglas Fuchs.

A sign near the Redding site of a serious June 2016 car accident involving teenagers on Cross Highway reads, "Drive Like Your Kids Live Here." — Aerin Reed photo

A sign near the Redding site of a serious June 2016 car accident involving teenagers on Cross Highway reads, “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.” — Aerin Reed photo

Accidents and incidents involving teen drivers have been in a white-hot spotlight for the past two years in the Easton and Redding communities. Two major car accidents have been life-threatening.

An accident in June 2016 left a Joel Barlow High School student critically injured and paralyzed from the waist down. An accident in April landed multiple Barlow students in the hospital for extended periods of time and with serious injuries.

Further inquiry among the teen community indicated that even teenagers themselves notice unsafe driving behaviors exhibited by people their age. Sabrina Weiss, a graduate of Barlow’s Class of 2017, said she has observed area teens, “speeding, drinking and texting while driving.”

The area on Route 107 in Redding near Umpawaug Road where April's crash involving a car full of teenagers occurred. — Aerin Reed photo

The area on Route 107 in Redding near Umpawaug Road where April’s crash involving a car full of teenagers occurred. — Aerin Reed photo

On a more hopeful note for the future of teen driving, Weiss said the recent big accidents have influenced the way students regard driving safety.

“The perspective on driving has definitely changed amongst my peers,” said Weiss. “There have been some horrifying accidents that have made the things that we have learned about in wellness classes and the PSAs that we have seen online become more real, and as loved ones become affected we all become more conscious of the consequences. It just becomes more real how easy a car can get out of control and how grand the impacts can be.”

This change is promising, but there is still something to be said for the fact that it required two major accidents to make safety on the road hit home for teens in the community.

“Unfortunately, youth’s institutional memory is fairly short as classes graduate, and the farther out an incident is, the less impact it seems to have on future behavior,” Fuchs said. “Many teens and others often think ‘not me — not in my backyard.’”

“Youth often have a difficult time understanding the sometimes significant consequences of their actions,” he said.

Speeding is the most common type of offense the Redding Police Department sees teen drivers committing. But with new technology and societal pressures, there are many other unsafe behaviors that occur while driving, such as Snapchatting and having too many people in one car.

What motivates teens to do things behind the wheel that they know are unsafe?

“Kids drive too fast because it is fun, convenient, and some teens view it as cool,” Barbara Powell, chair of the Easton Redding Community Care Coalition (ERCCC), said. Powell, a teacher at Barlow and the mother of several Barlow graduates, said that consequences for these actions are few and far between.

Attempting to make it home before curfew and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol are additional factors that lead teens to make these dangerous decisions.

And as for solutions?

“Engaging youth in a positive environment before a serious incident occurs” is the best way to reach teens about the dangers of their decisions while driving, Fuchs said. “Police officers often are a part of either health class or driver education classes in an effort to reach new and younger drivers.”

But sometimes it seems that isn’t enough.

“I think we need to do even more educating,” Powell said. “I think we should use a mock crash activity like so many towns do. I think we should have assemblies with people who have been affected by driving wrecks, texting wrecks, drunk driving incidents, etc.”

Powell and Weiss cited a guest assembly speaker at Barlow this spring as a powerful influence on driving safety perspectives. In addition to parents setting good examples in terms of safe driving practices, “We should also do more to combine what you learn in the health curriculum and what you learn in driver’s education,” Powell said.

From the firsthand perspective of a teen, alternatives to getting behind the wheel would decrease unsafe teen driving.

“SafeRides would really help the community,” Weiss said. “While Uber is an option, it tends to be very expensive, and SafeRides is a great program that other towns use.”

In terms of education through the high school, “I think students tend to respond best to genuine speakers, as opposed to just reading something in wellness classes,” she said.

SafeRides, which offers a free ride home for anyone who is under the influence, will be starting in Redding. Powell agreed it will be helpful in decreasing the number of teen car accidents.

The ERCCC is working to increase teen driving safety on many levels, according to Powell, with
“more education for kids, and more education for parents about safe hosting laws, how to host a safe party, and how to communicate with other parents to keep in the know.”

The ERCCC is also working with the Easton, Redding and Region 9 boards of education and the Easton and Redding police departments with regard to driving policies. The coalition already works with the Barlow community, and it hopes to begin working with John Read Middle School and Helen Keller Middle School this summer.

Easton’s and Redding’s winding and narrow roads are tough to navigate for even the safest and most cautious of drivers. At this crucial time, the issue of dangerous teen driving behavior is at the front of everyone’s minds.

That means plans for solutions and improvements are front and center as well. Hopefully, more education, communication, preparation, and alternatives will set teens driving down a safer road for all.

The site of the June 2016 car accident involving teenagers on Cross Highway in Redding. — Aerin Reed photo

The site of the June 2016 car accident involving teenagers on Cross Highway in Redding. The Easton Redding Community Care Coalition seeks to improve the safety record for teen driving.— Aerin Reed photo

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