Just north of Crystal Lake, a crab apple tree was adorned with ornaments of youth and sorrow. Playful road-trip photos dangled near cellophane-wrapped flowers. Homemade CDs nestled against half-burned candles. Ping-Pong paddles shared space with sympathy cards.
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."
Experts also note that the front portion of the brain, which includes the capacity to control impulses, judgment and decision-making, and coordinate multitasking, matures late--deep into the 20s.
The impact of alcohol
Research shows teens are more likely to speed and less likely to wear seat belts or recognize hazardous situations.
Add alcohol to the mix and a teenager behind the wheel of a car can be a very volatile, random and deadly combination.
But, liquor is only one of the factors.
Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that alcohol is a factor in only 15 percent of the 16- and 17-year-old drivers killed in 2004 car wrecks in the U.S.
An extensive report in 2005 by the Allstate Foundation, a non-profit subsidiary of the insurance giant, showed that drunken driving "accounts for less than 25 percent of all teen crash fatalities."
In fact, alcohol may be less a factor in teen-driving deaths than it is for adults. In Illinois, 28 percent of drivers ages 20 and younger who were involved in fatal crashes in 2004 were known to have alcohol levels over the legal limit, compared with 35 percent for the overall driving public, said Joyce Schroeder, a data analyst with the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Through February, IDOT officials have recorded at least 11 crashes in the six-county Chicago region in which teens were killed and a teen driver was involved. Those crashes resulted in 16 teen deaths.
And authorities say alcohol was a factor in at least three of those fatal crashes involving teen drivers.
Understanding the full role that alcohol and drugs play is complicated.
"There are circumstances that preclude testing. If they are injured, they may be taken to the hospital and their bodies may be filled with chemicals that affect the testing," Schroeder said. "It's not a simple, straight-forward question."
More riders, more risk
A more critical factor than alcohol and drugs may be the number of young passengers in the car, research shows.
A Johns Hopkins University study that broke down the driver death rate per 10 million trips showed the rate for a 16-year-old driver rose sharply with every passenger age 13 to 29.
When the driver was alone, that death rate was 1.99 per 10 million trips. When that driver was accompanied by one passenger, the driver death rate grew to 2.76 deaths per 10 million trips.
With two passengers, the rate was almost 3.7. And when three or more passengers were in a car driven by a 16-year-old, the driver death rate per 10 million trips rose to 5.61, the study showed.
Another factor is driver error, something of a catchall category investigators use because, in many cases, it is hard to find out precisely what occurred just before a crash, said Rob Foss, senior research scientist and manager of alcohol studies at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
Speeding is another frequent component in teen-driving crashes, Foss said.
"There are so many factors that are so situation-specific that come into play that we can only explain a tiny fraction of why crashes occur," Foss said, adding that most of the rest are tossed into the "driver error" category by default.
Special licenses for teens
Many experts suggest parents need legislative help in the form of a graduated driver's license, or GDL.
The concept, pioneered in North Carolina, gets at the heart of the most dangerous elements for a new driver, generally by imposing a nighttime driving restriction for 16- and 17-year-old drivers, forbidding them to use cell phones and limiting the number of teenage passengers.
Many of the GDL systems also require 16-year-olds to accrue up to 50 hours of adult-supervised driving before the young motorist can get a license.
It has shown encouraging results. North Carolina's GDL is credited with reducing fatal crashes particularly among 16-year-old drivers. A study by Foss showed that fatal crashes of those drivers in 1999 totaled 2 per 10,000 people in North Carolina, compared with 5 fatal crashes per 10,000 people in 1996.
Illinois' GDL system, which has been strengthened in recent years, now prohibits drivers under age 18 from using cell phones except in emergencies. It also limits the number of teenage passengers to one, unless that passenger is a direct family member, for the first six months of a 16-year-old's license.
Also, the law places an 11 p.m. curfew for 16-year-old drivers, which extends to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. And the GDL system may get tougher. The Illinois House passed a bill last month that would double the current requirement of 25 hours of adult-supervised driving for 16-year-olds before they get their license.
A mother's worst fear
Those measures, proposed by Rep. John D'Amico (D-Chicago) after two teenagers died in a Lincolnwood wreck in December, are too late for Priscilla Estrada of Round Lake.
In the months after her son, Jose Salinas, 16, got his learner's permit, she was so nervous about his inexperience that she hid the car keys and permit. It didn't matter.
Salinas and his friend, Rick Hernandez, 16, who was staying at Salinas' house Jan. 6, formed human figures by shoving a mound of clothes under a comforter in the bed where they were supposed to sleep.
Then Salinas took his mother's car keys, and the two buddies hit the road to see Salinas' girlfriend in Carpentersville. But Salinas--who didn't have a driver's license, lost control of the car as it barreled over a hill on Ridge Road in Barrington Hills. It struck a tree. Both boys were killed.
When Lake County coroner's investigator Paul Forman came to Estrada's door and awoke her with the shocking news, she told him he was mistaken. She took him to the bedroom to show where the boys were sleeping.
"Believe me, my heart just dropped," Forman recalled. "These were good kids. Good kids; bad choice."
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