Wednesday, August 08, 2001

Smug teens get dire warning

Young driver shares grim story

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Every other week, 17-year-old Kyle Mattocks stands before a group of his peers and tells them about the day he killed a man.

        He recalls that September day when a moment of careless driving left a 78-year-old bicyclist dead.

        On that day, Kyle became part of a grim set of statistics that shows Butler County leads the state in teen-driver car accidents.

[photo] At last month's Butler County Fair, the Butler County Sheriff's Department displayed this mangled car in which a teen had recently died to shake up teen drivers.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        His speeches are part of a program aimed at reducing teen accidents in the county.

        Kyle's audiences are made up of teens who recently received their first traffic tickets.

        “Many come in smug, eyes squinty,” says Kyle, a Middletown High School senior. “They don't want to be there, and they see no reason to be there.

        “That's when I tell them my story.”

        The Ohio Department of Public Safety says Butler County ranks worst of Ohio's 88 counties in crashes involving teen drivers.

        The ranking, based on a complex formula the department devised, is part of the annual Traffic Safety Action Plan used to identify counties with driving safety problems and to provide programs and funds to reduce accidents.

        It has been getting worse for Butler County, ranked seventh four years ago and second in 1999 and 1998.

        The county had 10,070 auto accidents involving teen drivers last year; 17 people died. That compares to 6,176 accidents in Clermont County, including 22 fatalities, and 4,129 in Warren County with 12 fatalities.

        Although Hamilton County recorded 28,475 teen accidents with 32 fatalities last year, the state formula ranks Butler worse because of Hamilton County's larger population and greater miles driven by teens.

    Butler County offers several intervention programs for teens preparing to get a driver's license and others who have been involved in accidents, received citations or just want to become better drivers.
    • 4-H CARTeens, presented by the Ohio University Extension Service, 1810 Princeton Road, Hamilton. Open by appointment with parental approval; most attend from juvenile court orders. Phone: 877-3722. Meets bi-monthly 6:15-8:30 p.m. second and fourth Wednesdays at the extension service. Focus: Making the right choices when driving; peer speakers; alcohol and drug issues; presentation by Ohio State Patrol Trooper William T. Dendler.
    • So You Want to Drive a Car, presented by the Safety Councils of Hamilton and Middletown for teens nearing driving age. Call for times and information. Phone: Hamilton Safety Council, 896-5333; Middletown, 423-9758.
    • In schools: Driver's Education programs, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs; school resource officers. Call area school districts.
    The county has received a $30,000 grant for alcohol-intervention programs focusing on teens driving under the influence, underage consumption and sales of alcohol to minors.
    The Butler County Juvenile Court and D. Russel Lee Vocational School are considering starting a court-ordered at-risk driver-education program using a driving simulator.
        Police blame several factors for Butler County's dismal record: heavier traffic; fast growth; and many winding, hilly roads.

        Speed limits on some roads are too high for inexperienced drivers, police say. And, they add, kids in general tend to be careless or to take risks.

        Such behavior adds to the treachery of such roads as U.S. 27, which long ago was dubbed “the highway to heaven” because of its frequent fatal accidents.

        To stem the accidents, Butler County's Ohio State University Extension Service four years ago launched 4-H CARTeens. Sessions have been crowded — 40 to 100 participants every other Wednesday evening, all ordered to attend by Butler County Juvenile Court.

        It seems to be helping, court officials say.

        Kyle thinks so, too, when he looks into the changing expressions of his peers as he recounts his fateful day.        

        Kyle was speeding — 8-10 mph over the limit — eastbound on Manchester Road at Cambridge Drive in Middletown at 2:57 p.m. Sept. 13. He and friend Justin Traux were headed to soccer practice.

        Kyle looked at Justin to see if he was wearing his seat belt. That's when Justin saw John O. Case bicycling out of Cambridge Drive, across Manchester.

        “Look out!”

        Kyle slammed on the brakes. Mr. Case was thrown onto the hood of Kyle's Mazda.

        Mr. Case died later at Miami Valley Hospital.

        Because he was speeding, Kyle was charged with vehicular homicide. He was found guilty and placed on probation. He lost his driver's license indefinitely and was ordered to do 100 hours of community service — helping seniors and addressing young drivers at CARTeens.

First-time offenders

        Magistrate John Brewer presides over Butler County's Juvenile Traffic Court. He calls the county's ranking disappointing and, to a degree, puzzling.

        Based on a random sampling of 100 juvenile court traffic cases this year, Mr. Brewer found that 80-85 percent were first-time offenders. Only four teens in the sample had been in trouble previously.

        Mr. Brewer said such statistics indicate that CARTeens and other programs are helping but that intervention efforts are needed even before the first traffic citation.

        “That intervention falls to parents, driving instructors and schools. We don't know who they are until we see them,” Mr. Brewer said.

Speed and inexperience

        The juvenile court magistrate said distractions and driver inexperience are key reasons teens are involved in accidents. Radios, CD players, cell phones and the number of other passengers are often factors.

        “You will find that as you add kids to a car, the chances of an accident rise exponentially,” said Mr. Brewer.

        He advocates that parents prohibit teen drivers from having other teens as passengers until they reach age 18.

        Although repeat offenses are low in Butler County, Mr. Brewer said, the court, sheriff's office and D. Russel Lee Career Center are talking about a program that would use a driving simulator to help second-time offenders whose driving errors are attributed to poor judgment.

        The CARTeens program was launched in Brown County in 1987, the brainchild of Brown County Juvenile Court Judge Ron Dvorchek.

        Since then, the county has seen a 72-percent reduction in second-time offenders, said Becky Cropper, community development and 4-H agent for the county's extension service.

        That success has resulted in CARTeens programs in many Ohio counties, including Clermont and Warren. Hamilton County does not offer CARTeens.        

A "Second Chance'

        As part of the CARTeens program in Brown County, the judge may assign a Teen Court to help determine punishment.

        For second-time offenders, Brown County provides “Your Car And You,” a weekend retreat for young drivers.

        CARTeens in Clermont sees 90 to 100 youths at each of its three monthly meetings.

        A “Second Chance” program is being developed for teens with records who, for extenuating circumstances, depend on driving and need a chance to regain their privileges.

        In the less-urban counties, many families depend on teen drivers, said Tanya Roe, deputy clerk in the traffic division of Clermont County Juvenile Court.

Narrow roads, hills and traffic

        The safe-driving message has moved outside the classroom, too.

        At the Butler County Fair last month, a mangled car consistently drew crowds. Amanda Schlabach, 16, had died in the car on her way to soccer practice just weeks before the fair.

        The Butler County sheriff's traffic-safety unit put the car on display to confront teens with the results of careless driving.

        Amanda, of St. Clair Township, was an Edgewood High School senior who was speeding July 6 and lost control, deputies said. Her car left the road and struck a tree.

        “We had thousands of people come to see the display,” said Lt. Steve Roach.

        “We are certain this display made an impression. We went to families and asked them for photos and letters (of their deceased children) to include in the display. It was an emotional week at the fair,” Lt. Roach said.

        Butler County Sheriff's Deputies Jim Mueller and Bill Stump deal daily with grisly traffic accidents such as Amanda's. They are two of six deputies in the Accident Investigation Unit.

        National statistics show that 40 percent of fatal traffic accidents and 48 percent of injury crashes are caused by drivers under 25, Deputy Mueller said.

        “I see a twofold problem here: a rapidly increasing population bringing more traffic, and more inexperienced drivers dealing with that situation. That's a bad mixture,” Deputy Stump said.

        Added Deputy Moeller, “We have a large number of narrow roads, with hills and valleys and curves limiting sight distance. The roads were designed for a third of the traffic they have on them. Speed limits have not been changed since the 1960s and early 1970s.”

        The county engineer is working to reduce speed limits on many roads, but state law prohibits changing speed limits on unincorporated or state roads without a battery of traffic counts and safety studies. Final approval is required from the Ohio Department of Transportation.

        “Now we have kids driving these roads who can't perform as well as more experienced drivers,” Deputy Mueller said.

        “Add the distractions — changing the radio station, talking on the cell phone, fiddling with the CD player. ... These kids have not developed driving skills to do multiple tasks.

        “And, remember being a teen-ager? They think they are indestructible. Many do not consider consequences, and they are behind the wheel of a 2,000- to 3,000-pound killing machine.”

        Kyle Mattocks is living the consequences every day.

        “After the accident, I was a hermit,” he said. “I wouldn't go out. I could not face it. Now, I can talk about it.

        “I like talking to my peers to awaken them and tell them it can happen to them. ... There was a time when I looked at myself and said: "There's Kyle the murderer.'

        “I quit calling myself a murderer. But there's still a stigma. Everybody knows.”


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