Derek broke a covenant he made to his mother — to never ride with an impaired driver — and it cost him and his friend, 18-year-old Stephen Dixon, their lives.
“We made Derek promise not to go with someone who is drunk, and it fell on deaf ears,” said his mother, who lives in Prince William County. “They think they will live forever and nothing will happen to them. But they are wrong . . . and a little of each of us dies when we hear about another teen killed” in a car accident.
Derek and Stephen died during what police and transportation officials say is the deadliest time for teen drivers. Many who are on the roads drinking, texting and driving will not arrive home safely during the season of prom, graduation and summer vacation.
“Life feels more carefree when school’s out, and teens have more opportunities to drive or ride in cars late at night with other teens,” said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. It’s a “deadly mix.”
Derek is one of the 299 teens in the Washington region who died between Memorial Day and Labor Day during a five-year stretch from 2005 to 2009, Townsend said. This year, there has already been a rash of teen accidents in the Washington area.
All of the fatal car crashes occurred in Maryland and Virginia. With less opportunity to speed, more mass transit and fewer car owners, there have been no fatal crashes involving teens in the District, Townsend and D.C. police said.
Nationwide, car accidents remain the leading cause of death for teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, about 3,000 youths between 15 and 19 were killed in car accidents and an additional 350,000 were injured. Although this number is down from 10 years ago, teens continue to kill and be killed when driving.
“Kids are so jaded by things on the Internet and TV,” Meffert said. “They live in la-la land, and then when it happens to someone they know, they are in shock. I don’t know how else to get through to these kids.”
For years, police officials have placed mangled vehicles in front of schools during prom season to show the dangers of drinking and driving. Now, police, schools and area organizations are reaching out year-round, addressing not only drunken but distracted driving, through brochures, driving simulators and special programs.
Derek Meffert and Stephen were two of five students at Battlefield High School in Prince William who died in the past year along hilly county roads. To emphasize the dangers of distracted driving, educators installed a simulator where students, often glued to technology, can see the potential effects of looking away for just an instant. In April, educators brought to the school the Save a Life tour, a national program that uses videos, personal accounts, a driving simulator and even an empty coffin to drive the lesson home.