The warning was dire inside the cafeteria at Howard High School last week during a safe-driving seminar: One wrong move and you could be dead.
Look at the pictures from a fatal accident on Route 29 and Johns Hopkins Road in Howard County, where a 19-year-old slammed into a UPS truck. Or another crash on Sanner Road in Howard, where a girl skidded on an icy patch while talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone. She hit a telephone pole.
"When you are driving, you have a machine, and it could become a killing machine if you're not careful," Pfc. Penny Branch, who is stationed at the school, said as she flipped through the photos in her PowerPoint presentation.
The more than 300 parents and students in the cafeteria collectively gasped at one horrific photo after another of local accidents. This year, the slide show has become mandatory viewing for all county students who want to apply for coveted parking permits at their schools. And they had to bring Mom or Dad.
This presentation "was created to save lives," Assistant Principal Steven Levy told the crowd. "Please remember that."
More than two dozen young people were killed in the Washington area during the past school year, including Howard County student Nicholas Thayer, 17. He was headed to a homecoming game -- going 50 mph in a 30-mph zone -- when he drove over a hill and lost control of his car.
Over the past four years, 10 county students or recent high school graduates have died in car accidents, said Steve Drummond, coordinator of school security.
Nationally, drivers ages 15 to 20 accounted for nearly 14 percent of fatal accidents in 2003, the most recent year for which information is available. The number dropped from 2002 but is 10 percentage points higher than a decade ago.
Howard school officials hope their initiative will teach parents how to help their children make better decisions. The program also includes a speech by the local nonprofit group Courtesy on the Road, which aims to reduce incidents of road rage and reckless driving. Drummond said that he hopes students learn to be responsible for their actions. Parent and student must sign forms at the end of the hour-long program as proof of their attendance.
At Howard High's presentation last week, the final slide read: "Why do these collisions occur?"
It listed three reasons: speed, alcohol and poor judgment.
Andy Jordan, 17, knows this. He got into a fender bender his sophomore year. The Howard High senior recalled the accident after the presentation last week. He was in his 1997 Honda Accord at a stoplight when the brake lights of the car ahead of him flickered off. Before that car had time to move forward, Andy accidentally stepped on the gas -- and hit the car's bumper.
"I was really tired," he said. His mother, Susan, put her hand to her temple and shook her head while Andy launched into the story of how he got a speeding ticket for going 84 mph in a 55-mph zone. Andy said he plans to contest the citation.
"What was it?" he said, trying to remember the correct terminology used to plead for leniency. "I used to know what it was."
"Guilty with an excuse?" offered his friend Nick Tomaszewski, 17.