Sunday, October 29, 2000

Young blood on roads

Fatalities with under-21 drivers high despite overall fall

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They're all gone now, 15 teen victims of another deadly year for youthful driving on Tristate roads.

A cross and picture of Kelli Ridenour, 13, marks the spot where she died last December.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
  - Young blood on the road
  • Take our teen driver survey
  • 'Graduated licensing' slow to show payoff
  • New driver laws in the Tristate
  • Teen doing time for girlfriend's death
  • Scares and rewards: Programs try to make safe drivers
        Jesica was first, one of three girls killed in boyfriends' cars. Anna and Kelli, then Brad and James and Eric, died in crashes all the more horrifying because of multiple young deaths.

        Lost, too, were Brian, Tiffany, Becky, Gene and Phil. Loni, Amanda, Tom and Charlie died alone at the wheel.

        While fatal crashes overall are down in the region this year, the number involving young drivers is disproportionately high and surpassing regional and national rates.

        One of every five fatal crashes — 21 percent — has involved a driver under age 21, compared to 16 percent for past years in the Tristate and 14 percent nationally.

        And of all the fatalities involving young drivers this year, half have been teens themselves.

        “These kids just have the invincibility factor, and it's scary,” says James Schoenlaub of White Oak. His 18-year-old son, James, was killed in June, on the way to a graduation party with two other teens who also died. None was wearing a seat belt.

        “They just think you're going to live forever.”

        Statistics prove them wrong.

        The Cincinnati Enquirer examined every fatal crash in nine Tristate counties since 1995 and found that drivers under 21 have been involved in 16 percent of fatal crashes — even though they make up only 7 percent of drivers.

        Most often, young drivers in fatal crashes here are male. And they're twice as likely as other drivers to be speeding when they crash.

        “I never thought I'd kill somebody,” Travis Leaver, 19, says from the Dayton Correctional Institution. The Reading man is serving a three-year sentence for aggravated vehicular homicide.

        Speeding, he lost control of his Firebird and flipped it down a snow-covered embankment in Madeira on Jan. 26. His girlfriend, passenger Jesica Longbottom, 18, of Madison Place was dead at the scene. He had been drinking; neither wore a seat belt.

        “Imagine how much I could have accomplished in those three years,” Mr. Leaver says in his only interview since the crash. “Not that I won't accomplish anything in here. But think about it.”

        “The hardest part is when you realize you're not going to see her again until you get to heaven,” Jesica's father, Brian Longbottom says.

"Speed kills, period'
               They are invincible drivers at an intersection of endless future and open road. Life is good.

        But 27 were driving in crashes that have killed 30 people on Tristate roads this year. Victims include people in other cars and several pedestrians — and numerous teens themselves.

        Nationally, auto crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for people ages 15 to 20.

        Of the 15 teens who died, 14 were killed since May. Nine were passengers,and six were drivers. One was driving on a suspended license. Two died in a car driven by a 16-year-old who had gotten her license only 13 days earlier.

        Speed was a common cause.

        “Speed kills, period,” says Chris Sweeney of West Chester Township. His 19-year-old son, Tom, was speeding around a car on his motorcycle last month when he lost control and crashed into a culvert. He was dead at the scene. His helmet was back at the house, in a closet near the garage.

        Unsafe speed was the single factor blamed most often for the 889 fatal crashes in Ohio's Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties from 1995 through 1999. (Only Ohio provides data to analyze cause of crash by county.)

        But while speeding was cited in 16 percent of all fatal crashes, it was blamed for 31 percent of fatal wrecks involving drivers under 21, the Enquirer analysis shows.

        Since 1995, Clermont County has had the highest rate of young drivers cited for speeding in fatal accidents. In 1997, young drivers in Clermont were at fault in all 12 fatal accidents in which they were involved. Speeding was cited in eight.

        Location may play a role, police say. The city is just too congested to speed, so more speeding crashes occur in the suburbs. There, many teens have cars. Roads are winding, hilly and sometimes poorly lighted. Trees lurk.

        “Speed, that doesn't surprise me,” says Alex DiTullio, 18, who saw three 18-year-old friends die when their car slammed into a tractor-trailer in Franklin County, Ind., in June. He was in a car directly behind the victims; both vehicles were headed to the same high school graduation party.

        In that crash, a 38-year-old driver in an oncoming vehicle was speeding when it hit the boys' car. But frequently, the young driver is speeding.

        “A lot of times it's inattention, especially if there are several kids in the car, talking loud, playing music,” says Lt. Paul Hermes of the Ohio State Highway Patrol barracks in Clermont County.

        “They lose track of how fast they're going. By the time they do, it's too late. "I'm young, I got the world ahead of me.' That type of thinking.”

More often boys
               Too often, the thing in front of them isn't the world, it's a curve in the road, a speed-reduction sign or a dangerous hill.

        And three times out of four, the young driver is male.

        The Enquirer analysis finds that 74 percent of the 144 fatal crashes involving young drivers in the four Ohio counties from 1995-99 involved a male driver. State records did not reflect gender in four cases.

        The rate was highest in Hamilton County, where 86 percent of the 50 fatal crashes involved young men.

        “Males have a higher rate for spinal cord and other serious injuries, and it's typically because they're more involved in that risky behavior,” says Stephanie Lambers, director of TriHealth's Think First Trauma Injury Prevention program, which focuses on driving.

        “Peer pressure is more a factor with boys,” and they're more likely to want to show off by driving fast, she says. “With girls, it's inattention.”

        But either sex can exhibit poor judgment.

        Anna DeStefano and Kelli Ridenour, both 13, were riding in a Jeep Cherokee with a teen driver and eight other girls, accelerating over hills to get the vehicle airborne. Several girls were screaming to get out.

        The June 9 “hill-hopping” incident cost Anna and Kelli their lives. The 16-year-old driver had received her license just 13 days before. She was sentenced to up to six months in a residential house for juvenile offenders.

        Hill-hopping was determined or suspected in several crashes in recent years, including a 1999 crash that killed two teen-age boys in Butler County and a 1995 crash in Riverside that also killed two teen-age boys.

        “I tell my guys on the street, I don't want to give young drivers a break, especially on speeding,” Campbell County, Ky. Police Lt. Mike Armstrong says.

        He has no sympathy for teens he stops for speeding, and he doesn't let them off with mere warnings.

        “It doesn't work just talking to them nice,” he says. “I wish it would.”

No seat belts
               If speed is prevalent among youth, so, too, is a blase attitude toward seat belts.

        Only three of this year's teen victims were wearing belts when they died.

        Becky Menard, 15, knew to wear her seat belt, yet didn't put it on the June afternoon she died in her boyfriend's car.

        “It was a back road, no traffic,” her mother, Katie Menard of Ohio's Clark Township says. “Maybe she just didn't think she needed it. You know how kids are.”

        Ohio State Rep. Jon Peterson, R-Delaware, wants to change that. He's sponsoring a bill that would allow police to stop and cite a person simply for not wearing a belt. Currently, Ohio and Kentucky laws require an officer to stop the car first for some other reason.

        The bill faces a Dec. 31 deadline for legislative action. If it becomes law, Ohio would join 17 other states, including Indiana, where going unbelted is enough to justify a stop.

        “I'll be real honest with you, I don't see a con,” Rep. Peterson says. “Candidly, the concerns about freedom pale compared to the number of lives saved.”

        Critics disagree, saying people, not government, should be responsible for personal safety.

        Going unbelted is a “victimless crime,” says Sharon Harris, president of the non-profit Advocates for Self-Government in Cartersville, Ga.

        “It doesn't endanger other people, and if you don't own your own body, what do you own?” she says.

        Covington police are thankful for government's role, Sgt. Jeff Gilreath says. The city recently got a renewed federal grant to stop drivers and remind them to wear their belts. Since November, when the program began, seat-belt use has risen from 46 percent to 52 percent, Sgt. Gilreath says.

        Laws aside, some analysts say parents can set the best examples for their teens.

        “You think kids aren't listening, but they are,” says Marge Schaim, owner of AAAA International Driving School and a member of the Hamilton County Health Department's traffic safety committee.

        “If they see their parents speed, or not wear their seat belt, they're more likely to be that way themselves.”

Overall deaths down
               Despite the crash rate for young drivers, 2000 has seen a remarkable drop in overall fatal accidents here.

        If trends this year hold, the nine Tristate counties will end 2000 with 152 fatal crashes, a 29 percent drop from the 214 crashes in 1999.

        Police and safety experts cite increased public awareness of road dangers, more government-funded speed monitoring and stricter drunken-driving laws that have imprisoned repeat offenders.

        But tragedy often strikes even good drivers, including teens.

        David Seibert, 17, of Clermont County's Jackson Township was doing everything right when his car was struck head-on by another vehicle in July. He wasn't speeding. He was wearing his seat belt.

        The impact killed David's front-seat passenger, Gene McIntyre, 18, a would-be inventor who wanted to help disabled people like himself. Gene, who always wore a seat belt, had a spinal deformity that kept him in a wheelchair when he wasn't walking on his hands.

        “Everything we did, our world was centered around him,” Gene's mother, Wanda McIntyre, says. “He wanted to invent something that would be a self-generating (perpetual motion) generator. He said, "I know it can't be done, but I think I can.'”

        The 19-year-old driver of the other car, Bobby G. Watson, also of Jackson Township, faces trial on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault, driving under the influence and driving left of center.

        Prison sentences vary. But a quarter-century ago, most young drivers involved in fatal crashes never went to trial. When they did, the charges were mostly misdemeanors. Now, even defendants under 18 face potentially long prison terms for fatal crashes under reckless circumstances.

        “When I started in '74, most wouldn't even touch those kinds of cases,” says Clermont County Prosecutor Don White, who supports tough penalties. “It wasn't looked at as a criminal matter the way it is now.”

Victims beyond victims
               Every time, the number of victims far exceeds the deceased person listed on police reports.

        “You know,” Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn says, “the worst thing is outliving your kids.”

        Mike and Janine Knapp lost their youngest daughter, and Corinne Knapp became an only child on May 12, 1999.

        Their daughter and sister, Kristin, 18, was killed in a Butler County joy-ride after school when a friend drove through a red light and collided with a Rumpke truck.

        “It's something that touches you so deep in your heart, especially because she was so young,” Ms. Knapp, 21, says.

        Kristin was set to join her sister at Wright State University that fall. On Sept. 3, 1998, Kristin wrote an essay for her British Literature class at Centerville High near Dayton.

        She hoped that her senior year would be a memorable one “because college is creeping up really fast, and I yet have things to accomplish and people to meet.”

        Her essay ends: “It's really scary how fast your senior year really does creep up on you. I never believed that high school would go by so fast. Hopefully, I accomplish my goals for this year, and stay on top of my plans. I'm looking forward to an extremely fun year!”

        So was her sister.

        “This would be awesome, you know,” Corinne Knapp says, “if just one parent will see this in the paper and say, "I gotta go talk to my kid.'”

Take our teen driver survey
'Graduated licensing' slow to show payoff
New driver laws in the Tristate
Teen doing time for girlfriend's death
Scares and rewards: Programs try to make safe drivers

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