On Feb. 19, a speeding Acura TL carrying Jeffrey Mills and Scott Scheckel swerved sideways on Red Barn Road and slammed into the tree, killing the two young friends. They weren't the first Chicago-area teens to die in a car accident this year. And as that roadside memorial withers, others will emerge elsewhere--symbols of a stubborn, agonizing truth: teens and automobiles, too often, are a fatal mix.
Every year, more American teenagers die in car wrecks than any other way. Nationally, that number was 5,610 fatalities in 2004. In the Chicago region alone, from 1994 through 2004, an average of 57 died annually in accidents involving teen drivers.
After a steady drop in the 1980s, teen driving deaths have remained relatively steady for the last 15 years--both in real numbers and the rate per 100,000 teens--enduring with such persistence that some experts are calling for a wide-range public health campaign.
"The public probably knows that teen drivers are at greater risk for fatal accidents," said Laurence Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University, a national expert on adolescence and author or editor of 10 books on the subject. "What the public doesn't know is what we ought to do about it."
The Tribune today begins to search for that answer. This year, the newspaper will dissect this unrelenting, wrenching problem, from the workings of the teenage brain to measures that show promise for turning the tide. The goal is to gain new insight and give teenagers, parents and community leaders practical information to help erase the pain of days like Feb. 19.
It's easy to get carried away in statistics:
- Weekend nights can be particularly deadly: 54 percent of U.S. crashes in which teens were killed in 2004 occurred on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and 72 percent of those deaths were between 3 p.m. and midnight.
- There were 1,180 people killed in crashes involving teen drivers in the six-county Chicago metropolitan region from 1994 through 2004, according to a Tribune analysis. More than half the victims were teenagers
Friend's plea comes too late
Lost in the numbers, though, is the very real, lasting loss of lives cut short.
"I don't think people realize how severe something like this is until it happens to you," said Cook County Sheriff's Police officer Tony Wasco, of Orland Park. On Jan. 29, his stepdaughter, Justina Tostado, 18, died after her 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix veered off Wolf Road in Orland Park and hit a ditch, street signs and a guardrail.
Distraught over a fight with her boyfriend, Tostado was in the middle of a tearful phone call with a friend, after an evening of drinking. It was pouring rain. The friend told her to pull over and wait for help. Then the phone connection died.
Tostado was thrown from the car. She died about six hours later, the fourth student or recent graduate of Sandburg High School in Orland Park to die in an auto-related incident in the past year.
"I used to talk to her and her girlfriends about making the right choices and being grown-up," said Wasco, who has handled a number of DUI arrests in his career. "You always feel kind of guilty that you couldn't do something to change the situation."
Guilt is the constant companion to many parents and friends who cannot help reconstructing over and over the events leading up to a traffic death. Anger, too--at their child, at a friend who was acting irresponsibly, at adults who may have allowed liquor at a party.
The cold truth is that precautions and restrictions almost always can be outfoxed by the mischievous teenage mind, a mind that is a study in contradiction.
The brain of a 15- or 16-year-old has the logical reasoning ability of an adult, said Steinberg, the Temple University psychologist. But that mind's social and emotional development is relatively immature. It also voraciously seeks sensual arousal, novelty and risk, Steinberg said, and is particularly vulnerable to distraction and peer pressure.
What exactly is going on in the teen brain that makes the driver more vulnerable to crashing, "no one knows for sure," Steinberg said. "But it is likely due to the combination of a relatively more activated brain system that propels individuals toward sensation-seeking and impulsive behavior and a still immature brain system that helps individuals regulate emotions and behavior."