Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Teen driving clinic founded on grief, hope

'So many of these teenagers die a senseless death'

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Marc and Paula Comisar (left), with their friends Pam and Richard Boynton, have created a fund to pay for teen driving clinics in memory of the Comisars' daughter, Kenzie (in photographs), who died in an accident last year.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
Marc and Paula Comisar can't bring their teenage daughter back.

But if Kenzie's death can prevent other teenagers from dying in car accidents, the Hyde Park couple will have some measure of peace.

As the first anniversary (Friday) of 17-year-old Kenzie Comisar's death approaches, teen driving clinics established in her memory are flourishing in the Tristate. Since December, more than 300 teens have been trained in how to respond to an emergency while driving.

"Everything is bittersweet," Paula Comisar said. "As in all tragedy, you try to make something good happen out of a tragedy. After the epidemic of all the deaths, we were trying to give these kids more experience behind the wheel."

Last year, Kenzie was one of 14 Tristate teenagers killed in car accidents. The number of teens who have died this year - 11 - is on pace to exceed last year's total.

For that reason, there's urgency in the voice of Pam Boynton, the mother of Morgan Lee, Kenzie's best friend and classmate at St. Ursula Academy.

"We'd really like to encourage schools and parents to band together with us to keep these kids from dying," she said.

Kenzie's death was the catalyst for the Comisars with Boynton and her husband, Richard, of Loveland to establish the Cincinnati Teen Drivers Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The fund pays the costs for schools to sponsor "scared-straight" teen driving clinics, as well as scholarships for families who need help paying the $135 fee.

The clinics are run by David and Jane Thompson of Melbourne Beach, Fla. David is a race car driver and former automotive journalist. The program began in 1993 through the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, where he worked.

VOTE: What would you do to cut down on teen driving accidents?
Aug. 8-10 - Indian Hill High School
Sept. 4, 6-7 - Loveland High School
Sept. 11, 13-14 - Goshen
Oct. 2, 4-5 - Cincinnati Country Day
Oct. 23, 25-26 - Indian Hill High School.
Nov. 6, 8-9 - Mariemont High School
Nov. 13, 15-16 - Forest Hills School District.
The cost for a teen-parent team is $135. Scholarships are available. Students can attend a clinic at any location and should bring the car they will be most likely to drive.
School districts provide classroom space and a parking lot. Districts' costs to host clinics are covered by the Cincinnati Teen Drivers Fund.
To register or inquire about scheduling a clinic, call (800) 862-3277.
Lack of sensitivity to danger: Society is more accepting of risk than it used to be. We're not as careful.
Easily distracted: Music, other teens in the car and cell phones are distracting. MRI brain-scan studies of adolescents and teenagers reveal that certain centers of the brain develop more slowly than other portions. Some of these decision-making centers and risk-awareness centers in the brain take until the 20s to completely develop.
Lack of skills: Most teens are trained to drive under benign circumstances and have a lack of exposure to high-pressure situations that drivers eventually encounter. They're turned loose before they are prepared.
Source: David Thompson, New Driver Car Control Clinics
It quickly evolved into a business that puts teens behind the wheel and trains them how to respond in emergency situations - beyond a typical driver's education course.

"We don't want to replace driver's ed," Jane Thompson said. "We want to augment driver's ed. You cannot teach a child to drive with a piece of chalk and blackboard."

The Thompsons operate clinics in Cincinnati, Florida, Georgia and, soon, Michigan.

Since their first Tristate clinic in December, the Thompsons have operated more programs in Cincinnati than anywhere in the country.

Each clinic consists of two hours of classroom time, followed by four hours of in-car exercises. The new drivers, who must be accompanied by a parent and must have their learner's permit, learn accident avoidance and defensive-driving techniques in a controlled situation - school parking lots.

Teens must bring the vehicle they will be most likely to drive. Each teen-parent team is given a walkie-talkie so they can hear instructions from Dave Thompson, who guides them through a series of maneuvers through cones.

For some maneuvers, he slickens the blacktop with an oily mixture.

Janet Uhl and her 18-year-old son, Brian, of East Hyde Park, attended a clinic in April at Princeton High School.

"When we drove there, the car was sort of in control of Brian," Janet said. "When we left, he was in charge of the car."

Trying to save lives

Kenzie's accident is at the heart of what the Thompsons are attempting to do - to save lives by reducing driver error.

Driver error causes 80 percent of the fatal accidents involving 16-year-old drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The percentage drops to 75 percent for 17-19 year olds.

Kenzie was on her way to Morgan's house when she had her accident on Loveland-Miamiville Road in Miami Township, Clermont County. The cause may never be known.

Speed, drugs and alcohol were ruled out as a factor. Kenzie, who had her license for 15 months, was wearing a seatbelt.

The wheels of her Jeep Laredo may have dropped off the road. Perhaps she overcorrected. Or, she may have swerved to avoid a deer. The vehicle rolled twice before hitting a tree.

When Kenzie didn't arrive, a worried Morgan went looking for her and came upon the accident.

"So many of these teenagers die a senseless death because they are not equipped to make a good decision in an emergency," Boynton said. "That's what happened to Kenzie," she speculated. "It was a driver error that she was not prepared for. I feel compelled to try to help other kids make a decision rather than lose their life at 17."

The Boyntons and Comisars hope this kind of accident-avoidance training eventually will be mandated by the state.

"They are simply not getting that in driver's education," Boynton said. "They don't get it from their parents. They do not understand the dynamics of stopping a car in an emergency situation."

In fact, some parents who attend the clinics admit they don't put in the recommended 50 hours of riding with their teens in the car.

"The responsibility of the parents is to get in the car with their children, mandate this 50 hours and be responsible for that," Paula Comisar said.

The loss of a life, she added, is far greater than the time parents are asked to spend in the car with their child.

Learning from others

Fueled by the passion of the Comisars and Boyntons, the clinics have taken off in the Tristate. Held once or twice a month, they nearly always sell out. Capacity is 40 teams of parents and teens. The Thompsons have hired Ernie Kelley to be district manager for the Cincinnati area, their first independent office.

The Cincinnati Teen Drivers Fund was the beneficiary of this year's Cincinnati Flower Show's Opening Night Gala last April at Coney Island. The gala was held in memory of Kenzie and the 13 other Tristate teens who died in traffic accidents in 2002.

In Anderson Township, the Forest Hills School District is a big supporter of the clinics. The district will sponsor its third clinic in November.

Teens, with their parents, completed a clinic earlier this month at Turpin High School's parking lot.

Anna Shepard, a 16-year-old McNicholas High School junior, and her mother, Connie Shepard, of Mount Washington, talked about the four-hour experience.

"I feel I understand what to do more in the situations where there could be an accident. I'm more aware of what's around me," said Anna, who already had her driver's license.

"Driver's education is a joke, pretty much, compared to this," she said. "Driver's ed is more about book smarts. The classes were so boring to me, I lost interest. This is more hands-on."

Because of the number of teen driving accidents in the area, Shepard felt strongly about giving Anna this opportunity.

"I'm going to write Mrs. Comisar a note, thanking the family for bringing this to our city," Shepard said.


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