In just a few days, Heather Bates, a 16-year-old sophomore at Fairfax County's Hayfield Secondary School, will become a full-fledged licensed driver.
Bates has thought a lot about the freedom and responsibility that the small plastic card will bring. One of her closest friends is recovering from serious injuries she suffered in a car crash, and her parents always emphasize safety when she ferries them on errands.
But yesterday at the Young Drivers Summit in Fairfax, Bates heard things that made her vow to be especially cautious and focused when she gets behind the wheel.
"I'm going to be like, 'I don't want my parents to have to bury me if I do something stupid,' " she said. "I've learned a lot."
About 265 people -- police officers, parents, school officials, even students who had the day off from school -- gathered at the county government center to think of ways to help keep young drivers safe. Over the past year, a string of fatal crashes in the Washington area have involved teenage drivers. Fairfax students were killed in some of the accidents.
Teenagers at the summit said they would benefit by hearing from crash victims and survivors in driver's education classes to make the dangers seem more real. Others said schools should require parents to attend driver's education sessions, too, which occurs in some other districts.
Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said the schools would explore putting driving simulators in schools to give young drivers a sense of real-world challenges, such as how to recover if you run off the road.
Laura Dawson, whose son Matthew was killed by a drunk driver in 1999, said she thinks no amount of education or regulation can guarantee that teenagers will avoid alcohol or stop speeding, but she thinks the efforts in Fairfax can help save lives.
"If one person is saved, it's one family that doesn't have to go through this," she said.
Dawson told summit participants that her son went out with friends on a Memorial Day. He was in a car with three other teenagers that evening when the 18-year-old driver lost control, she said. The car skidded and went airborne. Matthew, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the car and died, she said.
"It will never be over," Dawson said. "My life is forever changed."
Dawson said she goes to the cemetery often. During one recent trip, she noticed that someone had left a CD by the Deftones at Matthew's grave.
For Dawson, it was a sign that her son's friends had not forgotten Matthew or the crash. "Six years into this, and they still remember him," she said.
Valena Robinson, 13, a student at Luther Jackson Middle School, said she "originally was forced" to attend the summit because her youth group came. But by the end of Dawson's remarks, she had changed her mind.
"I needed to hear how important it is to be safe when you are driving," she said. "It was kind of like, 'It can happen to you, too.' "
During the hours-long session, participants split into groups and talked about how to improve driver's education programs and increase community involvement. They talked about pushing for tougher laws and punishments. Organizers -- including government, school and police officials -- said the ideas will be used to develop a plan that could include a public awareness campaign, changes to school programs and efforts to lobby the general assembly to change laws.
One group recommended banning talking on cell phones while driving. Another group said parents should be fined if their children commit driving infractions. Other participants said the county should encourage parents and students to sign a "contract" that outlines safe driving behavior.
Several groups recommended toughening the seat-belt law in Virginia, so police officers could stop drivers because they are not buckled up. Now, officers can ticket violators for not wearing seat belts only if they are stopped for another offense.