An Oct. 5 Metro column incorrectly said that Rico Scott, a 17-year-old student at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, was killed in a car crash in Poolesville. Scott was injured in the Sept. 25 crash, which left two other teenagers dead. The column also incorrectly referred to the high school as Watkins Glen. (Published 10/7/04)
Deep in the night, the thud of a car slamming full speed into a tree or a pole has an arresting sound of incompleteness. You wait for an echo that never comes. And then you wonder: Dead?
You hear the crash and think: Did I know them? Parents think about their kids.
Kids think: Should I go over and watch? Could be cool.
When five teenagers die in crashes in a single weekend, as happened recently in Montgomery County, the course of the following days is clear. There will be funerals with teenagers holding one another for strength against the intrusion of adult reality into their own private worlds. There will be hand-wringing by the authorities. (The police chief said, "We can't have another weekend like we had this weekend," but of course we can, and we will.)
People will say that the schools should do something and that parents should do something and that the state should do something. The newspapers and TV stations will ask teenagers whether they now realize how dangerous it is to drive, and the kids will put on their serious faces and attest that they have really and truly learned their lessons.
Can we at least agree that in the adolescent mind, drinking and driving is enormously fun? Can we at least concede that driving really fast on dark, empty roads is a supreme thrill to those who have not yet had to consider the consequences? Pretending otherwise has not saved many lives, so why not admit the attraction?
So, then: What to do? I couldn't bear going to a high school to ask young people who had lost friends why they act the way they do. I wanted nothing to do with the standard reporter's practice of confronting parents about how they intend to prevent their kids from killing themselves.
So I went to traffic court in Rockville. I figured that if anyone might be willing to put aside fun for the sake of safety, it would be people who had just been slapped down by the law.
The speeders, the reckless drivers and the harried filled the benches in Judge Gary Everngam's Courtroom 202.
Priya Tiwari, a 17-year-old senior at Watkins Glen High, was here because, with less than a year of driving under her belt, she had slammed into a car stopped in front of her. Tiwari knew Rico Scott, her schoolmate who was killed in the woods of Poolesville during a night of drag racing; Scott, a 17-year-old junior, was a passenger in the back seat.
Tiwari pleaded not guilty to the charge of failing to stop, but said, "I realize that it was my fault" and asked the court not to mar her record with points.
"I have a clear record," she told the judge.
"Well, my computer isn't working, so I'll take your word," Everngam said. "But I will make some random checks later." Without further comment, he agreed not to find her guilty and let her off with $92 in court costs.
Tiwari believes that the driving age should be 18 rather than 16. "You're more mature then, and you're not constantly in a rush like at our age -- go here, do this, do that." Tiwari said she got her license earlier because she was working two jobs and going to school, and her family was eager not to have to drive her everywhere anymore.
Would today's session in court have a lasting impact? "The points are gone," Tiwari said. "That's all I cared about."
The majority of the traffic cases are FTAs -- failure to appears. The judge reads off name after name, and no one in the courtroom responds. Too bad they didn't show; those who do seem to get whatever they ask.
Nathan Baude, a 19-year-old University of Maryland student who made the always savvy move of coming to court in his Air Force ROTC uniform, told the judge he was late for work because a class had let out late and that's why he was caught driving 54 in a 45 mph zone. Without comment, the judge ordered that no points be assessed and let Baude go with just a $44 charge.
Baude, too, would like the state to get tougher with young drivers. "My parents were very excited to see me get my license so they didn't have to cart me around," he said, so he got his license at 16. But he would like to see the time that new drivers are required to spend under learner's permit restrictions at least doubled.
In another courtroom, Tyree Davis, 25, and a slew of other defendants walked out with a smile on their faces and a bounce in their step. The officer who had stopped them didn't show up to court -- whee, they're free!
"Your lucky day," said Judge R. Noel Spence.
Davis, who came to court on a speeding charge, started driving at 18 but has come to believe that that's too young to drive. "The way things are out there on the roads now, at least 20," he said. "The only reason it's lower is that parents don't want to have to drive their kids all over. They need to take that responsibility, even if it's inconvenient."
All day, the points drop off, the findings of guilt are withheld, the fines are reduced. And not a single young person I talked to on the way out felt remotely chastened.
"If you're on [Interstate] 270 and everybody's going 70, if you go 55, people are just going to honk at you," said Kyaw Swe, who was caught going 56 mph in a 35 mph zone but got that reduced to a lesser charge. Swe, 22, started driving at 16 in his native Burma, where he said he was required to spend a month in driving school and a year under a student license. "You should be pulled over for speeding, but not in places where everyone speeds," like the big hill on East West Highway, where a cop sat ready to nab Swe.
Another newcomer to our wild roads, Chung Yin, 25, said that in his native Taiwan, people drive more responsibly. But when in Rome. . . .
"You have to get where you're going," he said in defense of the "many" speeding tickets he has received. "Time is money." Charged with going 77 mph in a 55 mph zone, Yin got off this day because the officer didn't show. "The laws here are too restrictive," Yin said, and he grabbed his friend's hand in celebration of his good fortune.
When Sarah Hassan came before Judge Everngam to answer a charge that she had failed to stop at a flashing red signal, the 18-year-old college student from North Potomac explained, "I haven't been driving very long, and I didn't know you had to stop at that kind of light."
The judge was curious. "How'd you get a driver's license?"
"I took the test," Hassan said.
"I ought to send you to driving improvement if you didn't get that part," the judge said.
But he didn't. He cut young Sarah a break; he withheld any finding of guilt and charged her just $52 in court costs. No points.
Outside the courtroom, Hassan pronounced herself less than pleased. "I thought he'd cut my fine in half," she said. "I came all the way down from New York for this."
Is it a problem that she didn't know the meaning of a flashing red light? "The driving schools should be better," she said, "because nobody told me about that."
And off she went. Vroom, vroom.
If the system doesn't take this stuff seriously, why would your kid?