May 24, 2018
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The tragedy of driving young

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
University of Maine student Sylvia Schuler, 36, holds a sign for traffic to see along Main Street in Orono in June 2009. Schuler, a part-time crossing guard, witnessed a dog being run over and said people often drive while distracted. She and fellow crossing guard Charity Lawrence (not pictured), 20, asked drivers to put down their cellphones and pay attention to their driving.

It’s tempting simply to accept that young drivers — those ages 15 to 24 — are more likely to die while driving than the rest of the population.

But Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers isn’t accepting those bad odds. Mr. Summers, who lost his first wife in a car crash 15 years ago, is hosting meetings around the state to listen to ideas for making young drivers safer.

The tragedy of the last few days, in which young people died on Maine roads, only strengthened his resolve to improve the odds. On Saturday, a 16-year-old girl and 19-year-old woman, passengers in a car driven by a 18-year-old woman, were killed when the vehicle crashed in West Paris. The driver was under the influence of alcohol and texting from her phone, according to reports.

Recent law made texting and driving illegal in Maine.

And on Sunday, a 19-year-old man was killed when the car in which he was a passenger crashed into a garage in Biddeford. Also on Sunday, a 20-year-old woman was killed in a single-vehicle crash near the Sugarloaf Ski Area. Speed was likely a cause in each.

There are quiet spells, then there are the tragedies of the last few days. In fact, the secretary of state’s office reports, 12 died in car crashes between Christmas Day and Jan. 9, and seven of those victims were young drivers.

Before the horror of recent headlines recedes, consider the national statistics: vehicle crashes are the leading cause of deaths among 15- to 20-year-olds. Sixteen-year-olds are three times more likely to die in a crash than the average of all other drivers. Sixteen percent of teen passenger deaths in 2008 occurred in vehicles driven by other teens. In fact, nearly 20 percent of passenger deaths came when a teen was driving.

In Maine, almost two young drivers die each month in Maine. More than 42 are injured in vehicle crashes each week.

We know why. Teens are are inexperienced behind the wheel. They are more likely to speed to show-off for peers. They are more likely to be distracted by peers who are passengers. They also are ill-equipped to manage their consumption of alcohol, which, of course, they are not legally able to possess or consume.

Maine has done much in recent years to address the problem. The license age was raised. New rules about driving without passengers, not using cellphones and not driving at night in the first months were adopted.

Mr. Summers hopes that driver education curriculum might provide one avenue through which changes can be achieved. He is soliciting other ideas at meetings at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17 at the motor vehicle bureau in Bangor; Wednesday, Jan. 18, in Caribou; and Thursday, Jan. 19, in Calais.

Traffic deaths, even among young drivers, have been declining nationally. In recent decades, features such as air bags and anti-lock brakes make driving safer. At the same time, newer cars are easier to drive with just two fingers on the wheel. And sadly, there are more things to do with the other eight fingers — dial, text or mess with a smartphone or MP3 player.

The West Paris story raises another element of safe teen driving — the role of parents. Too many teens have their own cars or virtually unlimited access to cars. Too many parents are oblivious to teen drinking parties. They must be more vigilant, just as police must be more vigilant in writing tickets for speeding, texting and not wearing a seat belt.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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