Summer, teens and the road can form deadly mix for driving

July 6, 2011

Derek Meffert was grounded that August night, but it was one of the last Saturdays of summer, so he talked his mom into letting him tailgate with friends before a Rascal Flatts concert. Derek gave his mom a hug and headed out the door with a friend.

Two days later, Derek’s mother, Yolanda Meffert, found herself at Pierce Funeral Home in Manassas, unable to remove the sheet covering her son’s body. She knew the smile he flashed for 15 years wouldn’t be there. Instead, she grasped his hand and placed her other hand on his chest. All she could feel were crushed bones.

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.

“We’ve had so many accidents and try to keep on each other, but for some people, it’s not clicking,” said Nicole Stalker, 19, a former Battlefield student who started the Facebook page Teens Against Teen Death. “Our generation needs to pay attention and stop treating driving like it’s a joke.”

As a parent who also makes a living talking to teens about safe driving, Montgomery County police Capt. Thomas Didone tried to drill the message into his son, Ryan. But in 2008, he found himself speaking at Ryan’s funeral. The 15-year-old was riding with a driver who lost control and slammed into a tree.

“He listened to his father speak on this, yet he got in the back seat with two girls and didn’t put on his seat belt,” Didone said. “My son would have graduated from high school this year.”

Now Didone tells a more personal story when he speaks to Montgomery teenagers. After his son died, he started a program called Forever 15, because “once a child dies, they are forever at that age,” he said.

Didone said he also wants Maryland to implement a program found in Northern Virginia jurisdictions that requires parents to take a 90-minute class before their child can drive.

Teenagers speaking about the deaths said that, by nature, they are risk-takers who think they are invincible. They said the “scare tactics” of photos and lectures that educators use don’t work on everyone. What does work, they said, is losing a friend.

Battlefield High School student Dane Howard, 16, met Derek in an eighth-grade English class. They played football together, went to parties and became best friends.

“After his accident, I was terrified to get in a car,” Dane said. “After a little bit, I realized I couldn’t be afraid, but I changed what I was doing. I now act as a designated driver. I won’t let anyone drive drunk.”

Former Battlefield student Travis Dunn, 17, said he would have been in the car with Derek if his mom hadn’t lent him her car that night.

“I would have been sitting where Derek sat — I always sat in front,” Travis said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t feel guilty about it. I was going to take Derek home that night, but he wanted to stay.

Travis and Dane said that the people who knew Derek don’t drink and drive anymore but that other teenagers continue. Dane said he would also like to see a curfew extension for teens who act as the designated driver.

“The kids who were friends with those in the accidents have really stepped forward and said, ‘You have to be a good driver,’ ” Battlefield Principal Amy Ethridge-Conti said. “I think the message is hitting home, but the question is, will they retain it when they get in a car?”

Dane still visits the Mefferts’ house for dinner or to help around the house. Yolanda Meffert spends her days caring for her mother, who suffered two strokes following Derek’s death. A trained opera singer, Meffert said she is slowly getting back into performing. Meffert said she also plans to travel, telling her story and presenting photos of the mangled car her son was pulled from to “whoever will listen.”

“Kids need to realize this is real. This is final,” she said. “When you die, your family dies with you. It just takes one bad move, and it is all over.”

New, proposed legislation for drivers aims to make roads safer

• On July 1, Virginia enacted a law that cracks down on underage drinking and driving. Anyone who is younger than 21 and has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.02 percent or higher will lose his or her license for a year and be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. Those convicted will also have to pay a minimum fine of $500 or perform 50 hours of community service.

Under the previous law, people convicted of underage drinking and driving lost their licenses for six months and faced a fine of no more than $500.

• Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are considering the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, which requires every state to enact a graduated license program for teenage drivers.

The bill was being reviewed by a subcommittee, according to the office of Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill in the House.

Mistakes teens make about driving

When getting behind the wheel, teen drivers make some of the same mistakes adults do: texting, speeding and other errors that lead to accidents. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are other factors that also put teen drivers at risk.  

• Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations or be unable to recognize hazardous situations.

•Teens are more likely to speed in the presence of male teenage passengers.

• Teens have the lowest rate of seat-belt use. Male high school students (12.5 percent) were more likely than female students (7.8 percent) to rarely or never wear seat belts. Hispanic students (13 percent) and African American students (12 percent) were more likely than white students (10.1 percent) to rarely or never wear seat belts.

• At all levels of blood alcohol concentration, the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens.

• In a national survey conducted in 2007, nearly three out of 10 teens reported that, within the previous month, they were in a vehicle with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. One in 10 reported having driven after drinking alcohol within the same one-month period.

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