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Parents must take the lead for teens

The Baltimore Sun

On July 13, a Friday night, five teenagers - four of them students at Centennial High School in Howard County - got a break. So did their parents.

The boys were driving around together just past midnight when the 16-year-old driver lost control of an Acura and crashed. All were injured badly enough to put them in the hospital. Thankfully, none died.

This was a story that struck close to home because my son just graduated from Centennial in June. Some of the names were very familiar. I'm glad it didn't turn out worse.

Anyway, one of the passengers injured in the crash told The Sun a speed bump caused the driver to lose control. The police said speed - not a speed bump - caused the crash. About six weeks earlier, the teenage driver had received a ticket for going 90 mph in a 55-mph zone.

Fast-forward a few weeks.

On July 29, about 8:30 p.m., four Pasadena teenagers went out for a ride when their car spun out at a high speed and hit two trees, according to Anne Arundel County police. A 15-year-old boy died. Three teens, including the 18-year-old driver, were injured.

An incident in New York in June was even deadlier. Five current or former cheerleaders in a sport utility vehicle, all ages 17 or 18, collided head-on with a tractor-trailer while attempting to pass a slower-moving vehicle about 10 p.m.. All were killed.

Police said the 17-year-old girl who was driving might have been speeding and texting on her cell phone just before the crash.

See a common thread?

These crashes are not failures of law. Maryland has some decent laws to keep 16-year-olds from tooling around with their friends at night. The driver in Arundel was a legal adult. Under New York law, the 17-year-old driver in the cheerleader crash should not have been behind the wheel after 9 p.m. and shouldn't have had more than two passengers younger than 21.

This is not necessarily a problem with the teenagers. We don't expect them to have fully formed judgment. Get them together in a car and they distract the driver, egg each other on and generally act like goofs. A boyhood friend used to crank up his souped-up car to 100 mph on Rand Road outside Chicago for the pure joy of scaring me to death. (It worked.) He was 16. I was 14. Some things never change.

Parents have to supply common sense at this age. And in each of these cases, for whatever reason, parents either failed to do it or weren't vigilant enough to enforce their decisions.

(But who's to judge? There are a lot of us whose kids have done the same things these teenagers were doing and who have gotten away with it - so far.)

Anyone familiar with Baltimore's affluent suburbs knows teens are indulged to a dangerous degree. Trust is often extended too far. Parents are reluctant to set firm rules. The kids run the house.

That's how you get four or five teenagers on the road together after dark.

How dangerous is this? You're not going to find many suburban teens willing to ride an MTA bus at night through the toughest neighborhoods of Baltimore. Even fewer parents would let them. Yet that bus would be safer than letting teens drive a car around the suburbs after midnight with multiple peers.

We start with the fact that 16- and 17-year old drivers are a menace because of inexperience and overconfidence. With a 16-year-old driver, the risk of a fatal crash is more than three times that of a driver in his or her early 20s. At 17, it's still twice the risk.

Now add the night factor. Studies have shown that teenage crash involvement rises after 10 p.m. Fatigue is likely to be a factor, as is alcohol. With 16-year-old males, the fatal crash rate per mile quadruples at night. According to the National Safety Council, while teen drivers put in only 15 percent of their miles at night, 40 percent of their fatal crashes occur during those hours.

Now the really scary numbers. Some studies have found that with three or more passengers in the car, a driver younger than 18 has five times the risk of a fatal accident as a teen driving alone.

Three times. Four times. Five times. That's a lot of multiplication. It may not literally be a 60-fold increase in danger, but you have a serious compounding of risk factors when multiple teens are in a vehicle at night.

Think of it as the suburban equivalent of a city teen hanging out on a drug corner on some other gang's turf at night.

In Maryland, the graduated driving license law says under-18 holders of a provisional license may not drive without adult (over 21) supervision from midnight to 5 a.m. During the first five months on a provisional license, drivers under 18 are not permitted to have passengers who aren't family members.

The law should be tougher, but that's not the point.

Parents can't rely on the law to protect their teens. They have to be the law.

That means setting curfews - not just for drivers, but for teens who might become passengers in a car with a bunch of other kids. It means restricting the number of passengers - even when the law's limits expire. And taking the keys after a teen gets a ticket for an extreme driving offense, such as going 90.

Trust your kid? Sure. But - with apologies to Ronald Reagan - verify, verify, verify. We've all read enough teen crash stories for one summer.

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