One thing that James Butcher tells Massachusetts high school students is that he’s sure they want to enjoy a great life and come back for reunions after graduation. But that won’t happen if they “drive like an idiot or ride in a car with someone who drives like an idiot.”
“I tell them that they have to make good decisions,” said Butcher, who has spoken at more than 30 high schools throughout the state since his 18-year-old daughter, Courtney, and three other teens, including the driver, died in a high-speed car crash in Leicester in 2007.
“I do that as a way for me to heal and to pay it forward for Courtney. I wish I didn’t have to do it,” said the former Westboro District Court probation officer, who is now head of the probation department at Barnstable District Court.
The deaths of Courtney and the three other Massachusetts teens — Bryan Rossik, 17, of Leicester; Julianne Caron, 18, of North Brookfield; and the driver, Nathan Plaza, 17, of Leicester — highlight the dangers of teen driving. The four were among nearly 5,000 people nationwide who died in car accidents in 2007, in which teens were the drivers. The period from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day is considered the “100 Deadliest Days,” for teen drivers because they drive more during school vacation and more motorists are on the roads.
Fatal teen crashes happen every day, most often because of immaturity, inexperience and distractions. But, during the summer, 10 people die each day as a result of accidents involving teen drivers.
“It’s an epidemic that is preventable,” said Kathy Bernstein, spokeswoman for the National Safety Council. “We know how to prevent teens from crashing, and that is through the graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws.”
GDL is a three-stage requirement for young drivers to fulfill in order to get full licensing privileges. Since states began implementing GDL in the 1990s, the number of teen fatal crashes has decreased by as much as 50 percent each year.
Bernstein said all states have GDL laws; none is perfect, but some are better than others. She said there are some weaknesses in Massachusetts’ Junior Operator Law. One is that only 40 hours of supervised driving is required to obtain a junior operator’s license. Before 2007, the requirement was 12 hours.
“We just don’t feel that is enough,” she said, pointing out that Pennsylvania requires 65 hours of supervised driving. “Driving is hard. You have to experience lots of things behind the wheel many times before you get comfortable at it.”
Bernstein is also critical of two other components of the state JOL — no driving between 12:30 and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent, and having no passengers other than immediate family members for the first six months. Both restrictions are secondary enforcement, which means the driver cannot be ticketed if they are not breaking some other law.
Nighttime, Ms. Bernstein pointed out, is the deadliest time for teen drivers. Having a law that says you can drive between 12:30 and 5 a.m. as long as you don’t commit any other offenses “doesn’t say be off the road,” she said.
Being allowed to have family members, particularly young siblings, in the car the first six months, can easily lead to the driver being distracted, a leading cause of crashes. Ms. Bernstein said an adult supervisor should always be required to be in the car the first six months. Allowing family members in the car is only for convenience, not for safety, she said.
Jeff Larason, director of Massachusetts’ Highway Safety Division, agrees with Bernstein. But as a state employee, he said he cannot say whether the two restrictions should be changed to primary enforcement.
“What I can tell you is there’s no doubt a primary law would likely reduce teen crashes,” he said. “Those laws, if stronger, have proven in other states to reduce crashes.”
Boylston Police Chief Anthony Sahagian said he would like to see the two components of the state’s JOL changed to primary enforcement. He said he would like to be able to stop a teen with a learner’s permit who is driving between 12:30 and 5 a.m. and call their parents or tow the vehicle, even though it might be viewed as harassment. A 16-year-old Shrewsbury teen died in a single-car accident in Boylston while speeding around 5:30 a.m. in December 2010.
“We’re trying to prevent a tragedy. It’s about changing behaviors and saving lives,” said Chief Sahagian.
Larason said laws designed to prohibit teenagers from being together in the same car also saves lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. That risk increases with the number of teen passengers.
There were five teens and no adult supervisors in the car when Butcher’s daughter, Courtney, was killed along with three others. The fifth teen who survived the crash was in a coma for a long time. Butcher said the 17-year-old driver, who had been licensed for a little more than six months, was driving a brand-new car his father had given him as a graduation present. The immature, inexperienced teen, who Butcher said was “showing off,” began speeding at 80 mph in a 30-mph zone. He had been fined for speeding a few months earlier. Courtney used her cellphone to call her brother, Colin, to ask the driver to slow down.
“The girls called screaming asking Colin to tell Nathan to slow down. Colin did, but Nathan thought it was a big joke. Five minutes later, they were dead,” Butcher said. He said Courtney was basically cut in half from the metal in the door that hit the tree.
When he speaks to high school students, he tells them what to do if they’re in a similar situation.
“If he’s not pulling over, grab something (a body part) and twist it until he stops the car and lets you out,” he said. “Somebody will come and pick you up. They will realize you made a good decision and probably saved your life.”
Experts, including Bernstein, the spokeswoman for the National Safety Council, recommend that parents make a written contract with their teen driver laying out expectations and what the consequences are for breaking the rules. She said there is a lot of evidence that when parents and teens partner in this process teens are safer on the roads. Sample contracts and other helpful resources are available at http://driveithome.org/.
“What we try and help people understand is the parents really control the keys in the family and really can set their own law. Without policy changes in state laws, you can have policy changes in the household,” she said.
In Illinois where Bernstein lives, young drivers’ nighttime driving is restricted to 11 p.m. during the week and midnight on the weekends. But she required her 16-year-old son to be home by 9 p.m. for the first three months and then 10 p.m.
“Now, that we’re a year in, we can follow the state law,” she said.
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