Arturo Betancourt awoke at 3 a.m., unable to sleep, and started searching the Internet for data on fatal traffic accidents.
Three weeks earlier, his 16-year-old daughter Alicia stepped into another teenager's car to go for ice cream four miles from her home in Silver Spring. They were good kids, out with their parents' permission, sober.
But fate and probability rode with them that night -- the raw, undeniable numbers that make 16-year-olds, the country's newest drivers, four times more likely than the average to be involved in a car crash, and three times more likely to die in one.
Alicia was killed when her friend lost control of his car and spun into a lamppost. Since then, Betancourt, an ophthalmologist with offices in Glen Burnie and Clarksville, has been looking for something to help him understand, or anything that he could do that might help another family avoid his pain.
"The more I read about the current statistics in teenage driving, the more things need to change," Betancourt, 48, said. "We don't let kids drink until they're 21, but we put them in killing machines before they're really able. It killed my daughter."
In just one month's time, 15 young people have been killed in the Washington region, including a 3-year-old girl, in nine crashes involving teenage drivers. The first occurred Sept. 16, when a 16-year-old Vienna teenager smashed into a tree on a winding road while playing cat-and-mouse with another teenager. The ninth and most recent happened Oct. 17 on Interstate 95 in Virginia, when one passenger died after a 17-year-old girl lost control and rolled a Cadillac sport-utility vehicle filled with members of her rowing team. She had six passengers, more than she was allowed by Virginia law.
Each of the crashes involved cars driven by a teenager with at least one teenage passenger. Excessive speed played a role in seven of the accidents. Failure to wear seat belts contributed to death or injury in seven. Alcohol was a factor in just one, and suspected in another. All but three happened after dark, and all but three occurred on a weekend. Inexperience -- such as drivers overreacting after the car drifted onto the shoulder -- played a role in at least four accidents. In every crash but one, the driver was male.
In the wake of the wrecks, legislators, law enforcement officials, advocacy groups and parents have been searching for ways to prevent teenage traffic deaths, including calls for stricter laws, more stringent licensing and driver-education programs, and more parental involvement.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a campaign using athletes, musicians and actors to educate young people about the risks of driving, while Mothers Against Drunk Driving urged states to lengthen the period of time that novice drivers must go before receiving full privileges. AAA Mid-Atlantic called on legislators to pass tougher restrictions on teenage passengers, citing surveys showing nearly 3-to-1 support in Virginia and Maryland.
"We lose about 6,000 teen lives a year. I don't know why this is acceptable," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "The fact is, we do have a crisis. The fact that these deaths came together at once served to show we have a crisis."
Sometimes, the crashes convey the sheer recklessness of youth.
Two weeks ago in Woodbridge, for instance, 17-year-old Weston Griggs blazed through a 40 mph zone at 75 mph before his Jetta flew off the road and snapped a telephone poll into three pieces. Griggs and his two passengers died in the 3:50 a.m. crash.
Griggs was not supposed to be on the road at that hour, given the state's midnight curfew on drivers under age 18. None of the young men was wearing a seat belt. And police detected an odor of alcohol at the scene and found marijuana in the car, said Prince William County Detective Dennis Mangan. Toxicology reports are pending.
Traffic deaths of teenagers are rising nationwide, up 5 percent in the past 10 years, even as the overall fatality rates for such crashes has dropped. High speed, alcohol and the failure to wear seat belts were the biggest contributors to teenage deaths, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded in a report released this month.
Some safety advocates also blame faster and more powerful cars. Others cite auto industry advertising, and even the popularity of NASCAR racing, for glamorizing speed. Others fault America's love affair with suburbia and lack of mass transit. Even the nation's affluence -- which has made two- and even three-car families the norm -- has been cited.
Then there is that intangible sense of youthful invulnerability.
Scientists offer different theories on why teenagers take greater risks than adults. Some studies say it's lack of negative experience, brain immaturity or hormones; others say risk-taking is a function of parental influence, personality or even heredity.
Montgomery County Police Capt. John Fitzgerald marvels at the way young people deposit flowers at roadside memorials for crash victims and then get back in their cars and tear away at high speed.
At its extreme, the risk-taking leads to dangerous practices, such as the street racing that police department are battling. Two fatalities in Poolesville last month came when a car sped away from the police cruiser that arrived to break up a race.
Fitzgerald said his police force would like to see laws that would penalize spectators at an unsanctioned racing event and allow police to seize participants' vehicles.
But disaster, especially with teenage drivers, often comes from a minor lapse -- drifting onto a shoulder and overcompensating. Or taking a turn too fast on a wet, wooded stretch of suburban road.
Heading for his homecoming football game with two teenage friends on a Saturday morning earlier this month, Nicolas P. Thayer, 17, was going down a hill and into a curve on Landing Road when he lost control of his car.
Thayer was going too fast -- about 50 mph in a 30 mph zone -- and the road was still slick from rain the night before, said Howard County Police Officer Brandon Justice.
His 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix began to spin as he crossed the double yellow line into the path of another car. The impact killed Thayer, a 6-foot-4 Howard High School junior on the football team who was known by friends as "Big Bear." And it killed Natalie Velasco, a 3-year-old girl in the other car.
Stephen Peddicord, 17, was in the back seat when his friend crashed. He remembers Thayer picking him up that morning, and nothing else. "Everything else is black," said Peddicord, who suffered a concussion, as well as injuries to his wrist, hip and leg.
All three teenagers had been wearing seat belts. But Peddicord also acknowledged that his friend had a "heavy foot."
"Every teenager is always speeding when they first start driving," said Peddicord, who admitted he is on probation for a speeding infraction. Now, however, when he gets in his car, he finds it difficult to work the stick shift because of his injuries. The act of driving itself seems weird.
Government officials recognize the problem of driver inexperience among teenagers and have developed programs to cope with it. Among the most successful are graduated licensing programs that grant driving privileges to new drivers in phases.
Since 1996, 41 jurisdictions -- including the District, Maryland and Virginia -- have adopted graduated licensing programs, and many have shown success. After Ohio adopted its program in 1999, fatal crashes involving 16- and 17-year-olds fell by 70 percent.
Usually, the first stage involves issuing a learner's permit for a minimum period of time of closely supervised driving instruction. The second, known as a provisional license, follows passage of written exams and road tests and permits young drivers unsupervised driving, usually with restrictions on nighttime driving and passengers. The final stage grants full privileges. But the laws vary, and their enforcement is uneven.
"We've talked to police, and typically they were not enforcing these laws," said Susan Ferguson, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington.
As part of these programs, many states limit the number of passengers that novice drivers may carry, because studies have found that the risk of a fatal accident increases when teenagers drive other teenagers around. Virginia and the District also have restrictions on the number of juvenile passengers a young driver may carry. Maryland does not. For the past three years, Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Montgomery) has introduced a bill in Maryland's General Assembly that would prohibit teenage drivers with provisional licenses from carrying any passengers under the age of 18, except for family members.
"I am not foolish enough to believe this is a cure-all," Mandel said in an interview. "However, parents pleaded with us to pass the legislation to give us one more tool."
But lawmakers from rural parts of the state said the measure would make it difficult for high school students to get around. With working parents, few options for public transportation and schools miles from home, many teenagers would be stranded.
"Two families living side by side would have to run two cars," Del. Paul S. Stull (R-Frederick) said. "My heart goes out to these parents, and my heart cries a little bit too, but I don't think we can slam the door on everybody because a couple of people have chosen not to follow the rules."
For Arturo Betancourt, his search for answers is, he hopes, a prelude to action. Since his daughter's death, he has returned to his ophthalmology practice, and last week he took some time off to go out of town with his wife. Their other daughter, Veronica, came home from a year abroad in Italy to be with the family for a time.
Betancourt said Alicia (pronounced Ah-LEE-see-ah) was a talented artist. When she was 11 years old, her work was published in the children's magazine Stone Soup, and she had recently attended a pre-college course on scholarship at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
"Alicia was a very good kid," her father said.
And so, Betancourt said, was the young man who drove away with her that night.
Betancourt knew that Hersh Kapoor earned good grades at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring. Kapoor also helped at school as an aide for an instructor who teaches Web site design. Betancourt said he and his wife had no worries when the youngsters pulled away from the curb.
Kapoor, reached at his home in Olney last week, said he does not remember the crash and, because of the pending investigation, could not talk about the accident.
Betancourt said he is not sure how he will advocate for change. He needs more time.
"Once I can get my head screwed on, I will," he said.
Elmer Martinez and Edward Monterroza
Weston Griggs and Vernon Williams Jr.
Sara E. Holland and Jacob Z. Young
Photos not available: Sept. 25, Michelle Timehalk; Oct. 2, Nicholas Thayer and Natalle Velasco; Oct. 10, Marshall Rawlings
Inexperience and speed are among the leading causes of teenage driving deaths. Above, the Vale Road site where Eric Johnson, 16, of Vienna died.