Sitting in the kitchen, Shana Shrader and her college-age girl posse have something to confess.
They drive a lot -- they live a long way from things, in Clarksville. They sometimes drive fast. And sometimes they crash their cars -- or, in Shrader's case, her dad's cars.
"She spun out in my Supra, which she took without my permission," says Dad, aka Robert Shrader, on his way to work, where he's general manager of Carmax and Laurel Toyota.
"You gave me permission," Shana shoots back. "I was learning the stick shift."
She turns to explain. "I had trouble putting it into first gear after stopping at a stop sign. I raced the engine, it took off and hydroplaned, running the hood under a big truck."
Months earlier, in Dad's Land Rover, she had bumped into a Camaro. Two years before, 15 and unlicensed, she had climbed into his Toyota 4Runner -- "Without my permission," Dad says, and backed into the driveway too fast. "I ran into the side of the house so hard, a whole construction crew had to come out to shore up the house."
The young women smoke cigarettes and keep talking. Jackie Tayman says she hit three cars in three separate incidents. Marissa Montanez says she was riding in a car driven by another girl when it flipped over several times.
None of the three has been seriously injured, but their experiences reflect a sobering development in road safety: Young women are crashing cars -- and dying in cars -- at significantly higher rates than a decade ago.
They're driving, in other words, like guys.
Federal highway officials are so alarmed by this that they put it near the top of a recent press release, citing among 15- to- 20-year-olds a 42 percent increase in young female driver fatalities from 1992 to 2002 (the rate for young males rose 15 percent). State Farm Insurance, a leading auto insurer, has monitored the trend and adjusted its rates for girls accordingly: from 61 percent less than boys' rates in 1985, to 40 percent less today.
No one doubts that girls are driving more than they used to. Full social calendars, inadequate public transportation in the suburbs, owning their own cars, a keen sense of independence all contribute to more young female drivers behind the wheel traveling more miles.
Shrader and her pals are a good example. They think nothing of piling into a car and driving from their upscale Howard County homes to Cape Cod, New York City or South Florida.
"My car's been everywhere," Shrader says proudly in the kitchen. In three years she has put 52,000 miles on her 1998 Toyota Corolla -- a model Dad chose because it had side airbags. Her friends admit to even more miles; in two years, Tayman's Honda Civic has chalked up 40,000, Montanez's Civic 72,000.
Some of that driving is done alone; the day of relying on boyfriends or brothers is ancient history. Montanez drove home regularly this past school year from the University of South Carolina to see her boyfriend. Tayman recently let a boy pick her up for dinner, then insisted on going back home afterward to get her car so they could drive separately to a party.
Why? "So if he left, I could stay," she says.
"We like to be in control of what we do," Montanez explains. She and her friends would rather pick up a guy than be picked up, she says.
"I'll ask the guys, 'Don't you feel inadequate because your girlfriends drive you everywhere? They're like, 'We like it,' " she adds.
Once these girls decide on an adventure, they and any other pals they can muster up drive separately to a designated spot near the Giant supermarket in River Hill Village Shopping Center. They park their wheels amid the soccer-mom Escalades, and whoever has the most gas agrees to chauffeur everybody else.
If more of them sign on than can fit in one car, they'll take a second car. But that doesn't mean they'll necessarily return in two cars. After partying at a Baltimore club recently, Tayman, one of two drivers, couldn't find her car keys. Nine people rode home in Shrader's Corolla -- six in the back seat, three up front.
Stories like Shrader's frighten authorities, who say teen drivers are almost five times as likely to have an accident with passengers in the car than if they are driving alone.
Such a collision occurred one wet morning last week in Bowie as a young woman driving with another teenager steered her Buick sedan around a curve on a slick country road. Traveling faster than she should have given the road condition, according to police, she crossed the double yellow line and plowed into a Pontiac minivan carrying three girls.
The impact pushed the Buick's engine and dashboard into the driver and her passenger, said Capt. Mark Brady, spokesman for Prince George's County fire and emergency medical services. No airbags inflated. Rescue workers spent a half-hour cutting off the top of the Buick and pulling the critically injured driver and passenger out before flying them by helicopter to the hospital.
The minivan's drivers, all wearing seat belts and somewhat protected by airbags, were treated for minor injuries and released.
Safety experts say teens driving with other teens are easily distracted.
"I remember riding with [a friend] while she was shifting gears, smoking, changing the radio and talking on her cell phone and to me, all at the same time," Tayman recalls.
Montanez offers another story: "One of our friends was looking for her lighter and ramped her car over the top of another car." The friend survived, she notes, and is now on her third car.
Gordon Booth, a nationally known driving teacher, calls high school driver's education programs "deplorable," and holds them partly responsible for the crash rates of both sexes. He and others suspect there may be gender-specific driving characteristics that such programs are not addressing.
Are girls more likely than guys to drive with friends? More likely to chat on a cell phone while driving? More likely to make multiple stops when they're out -- a practice the experts call "trip-chaining" -- which increases the risk of having an accident?
Those who should know haven't a clue. "Over the years we have focused on young male drivers," says Jim Wright, a safety specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They were considered "the real problem."
Wright says the agency is going to have to expand its research because although teenage boys still crash more often than girls, the gap is narrowing. Sixteen-year-old female drivers, for example, were involved nationally in 175 car crashes per 1,000 licensed drivers in 2000, up from 160 crashes in 1990. Boys' involvement declined over the same period, from 216 to 210. There are about as many female as male licensed drivers under 21: 6 million.
Simple exposure can't explain everything, Wright says. "We need to tease out the subtleties."
Such as attitude and choice of automobile? Gordon Booth says he and his fellow instructors have noticed more young women driving aggressively in cars that are built for power and speed.
Robert Shrader, Shana's father, who sits on Toyota's board of governors of top auto dealerships, says the same thing.
"Girls come in now wanting trucks and SUVs," he says.
If Mom or Dad are paying, the girls usually settle for a Corolla or Honda Accord. But it's their frame of mind that impresses him.
"They say 'I work out, I have an active lifestyle. I need a car that fits me.' It's an assertive, go-getter, renegade personality." Like that of his daughter, her friends and her friends' friends.
Marissa Montanez tells this story about a friend: A junior in high school, the girl had been driving for only a few months, squiring her friends around in a new VW Jetta. One afternoon she talked Montanez into skipping school and riding with her to see the girl's boyfriend.
"As I got in the car, she told me to put my seat belt on, that we were going to go fast," Montanez recalls. "She didn't want to keep her boyfriend waiting."
They escaped down a back road through the countryside. Montanez remembers the Jetta racing up a hill at 100 mph, air whistling through its open sunroof. Cresting over the top, the car flipped several times and landed, right side up, among some trees on the side of the road. Virtually everything flew out of the car on the way down -- ballet shoes, plastic bags, candy wrappers. Only the girls stayed in, buckled up and somehow, not seriously injured.
Despite such scares, these young drivers voice a passion for the freedom their cars provide.
When Tayman was a child, "I'd take chalk and draw a highway on our driveway and go up and down on my bike, pretending I was driving," she recalls. Years later, when she got her older sister's Honda Civic, "I'd drive just to drive."
"It's all about being independent, going out, doing our own thing," Montanez says.
Montanez has come to realize -- at her father's insistence -- that independence comes at a price. She checks her car's oil, keeps an eye on tire tread and has changed her car's tires several times.
Her friends leave such tasks up to their fathers. Kristin Backstrom, who recently started S2W (Safe Smart Women), a driving and car-care program in Maryland for girls, thinks that's a problem.
Backstrom says she believes girls would be better drivers if they knew more about their cars. At 16, she was required to take care of her Ford Fairlane by a mother who had a motorcycle and a sports car. She realizes hers was not a typical education but is surprised that attitudes haven't changed. Now, as then, she says, girls pick up a subtle, erroneous, message: Driving is cool but taking care of cars is a guy thing.
"I recently ran a focus group of 16 very bright young women," she says. "Their experiences with cars were appalling." On the positive side, she adds, is that girls are less likely than guys to drink and drive and more likely to wear seat belts. They're safety-conscious to a point, but not car-conscious: "They know little about the control they can have, or should have, over their cars."
Safety experts say parents have no business giving cars to their daughters or sons in high school. Ownership virtually ensures that young people will drive more than if they have to negotiate time with the family car. And handing over a new car, especially with high-performance capabilities, resembles giving the teenager a loaded pistol without requiring firearms training. "You're giving them the power without the skills," says instructor Booth.
Yet some parents with money feel compelled to play Santa. Wright, of the highway traffic safety administration, knows a girl who was recently surprised by a new sporty convertible.
"Wow, she might be a good kid," he thought to himself, "but she's still 16 years old."
A State Farm Insurance agent in Northwest Washington in the business for 21 years says he has seen a big jump in the number of girls who have their own cars. "It's almost a given."
He recalls clients who, about a year ago, bought their 19-year-old daughter a classic, powerful Nissan 300ZX. "I remember thinking at the time, 'Why are you buying that car for her?' "
Shortly after the young woman started driving, he says, she took it out during a rainstorm, lost control, ran into a truck and was killed.