WASHINGTON — Derek Meffert was grounded that August night, but it was one of the last Saturdays of summer, so he talked his mom into letting him tailgate with friends before a Rascal Flatts concert. Derek gave her a hug and headed out the door.
Two days later, Yolanda Meffert found herself at the suburban funeral home, unable to remove the sheet covering her son’s body. She knew the smile he had flashed for 15 years wouldn’t be there. Instead, she grasped his hand and placed her other hand on his chest. All she could feel were crushed bones.
Derek broke a covenant he made to his mother – to never ride with an impaired driver – and it cost him and his friend, 18-year-old Stephen Dixon, their lives.
“We made Derek promise not to go with someone who is drunk, and it fell on deaf ears,” Meffert said. “They think they will live forever and nothing will happen to them. But they are wrong .. . and a little of each of us dies when we hear about another teen killed.”
Derek and Stephen died during what police and transportation officials say is the deadliest time for teen drivers. Many who are on the roads drinking, texting and driving will not arrive home safely during the season of prom, graduation and summer vacation.
“Life feels more carefree when school’s out, and teens have more opportunities to drive or ride in cars late at night with other teens,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. It’s a “deadly mix.”
Car accidents remain the leading cause of death for teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, about 3,000 youths ages 15 to 19 were killed in car accidents and 350,000 were injured. Although this number is down from 10 years ago, teens continue to kill and be killed when driving.
“Kids are so jaded by things on the Internet and TV,” Meffert said. “They live in la-la land, and then when it happens to someone they know, they are in shock. I don’t know how else to get through to these kids.”
For years, police have placed mangled vehicles on school campuses during prom season to illustrate the dangers of drinking and driving. Now police, schools and other organizations are reaching out year-round, addressing not only drunken but distracted driving through brochures, driving simulators and special programs.
Derek and Stephen were two of five students at suburban Battlefield High School who died in car crashes in the past year. To emphasize the dangers of distracted driving, educators installed a simulator where students, often glued to technology, can see the potential effects of looking away for just an instant. In April, educators brought to the school the Save a Life tour, a national pro gram that uses videos, personal accounts, a driving simulator and even an empty coffin to drive the lesson home.
“We’ve had so many accidents and try to keep on each other, but for some people, it’s not clicking,” said Nicole Stalker, 19, a former Battlefield student who started the Facebook page Teens Against Teen Death. “Our generation needs to pay attention and stop treating driving like it’s a joke.”
As a parent who also makes a living talking to teens about safe driving, Montgomery County (Md.) police Capt. Thomas Didone tried to drill the message into his son, Ryan. But in 2008, he was speaking at Ryan’s funeral. The 15-year-old was riding with a driver who lost control and slammed into a tree.
“He listened to his father speak on this, yet he got in the back seat with two girls and didn’t put on his seat belt,” Didone said. “My son would have graduated from high school this year.”
Now Didone tells a more personal story when he speaks to teenagers. After his son died, he started a program called Forever 15, because “once a child dies, they are forever at that age,” he said.
Teenagers speaking about the deaths said that, by nature, they are risk-takers who think they are invincible. They said the “scare tactics” of photos and lectures that educators use don’t work on everyone. What does work, they said, is losing a friend.
Battlefield student Dane Howard, 16, met Derek in an eighth-grade English class. They played football together, went to parties and became best friends.
“After his accident, I was terrified to get in a car,” Dane said. “After a little bit, I realized I couldn’t be afraid, but I changed what I was doing. I now act as a designated driver. I won’t let anyone drive drunk.”
But, Derek said, while the teens who knew Derek don’t drink and drive anymore, other teens continue.
“The kids who were friends with those in the accidents have really stepped forward and said, ‘You have to be a good driver,’ “ Battlefield Principal Amy Ethridge-Conti said. “I think the message is hitting home, but the question is, will they retain it when they get in a car?”
Dane still visits the Mefferts’ house for dinner or to help around the house. Yolanda Meffert, a trained opera singer who is slowly getting back into performing, said she plans to tell her story and show photos of the mangled car her son was pulled from to “whoever will listen.”
“Kids need to realize this is real. This is final,” she said. “When you die, your family dies with you. It just takes one bad move, and it is all over.”