by Donna Nahlik, Prevention Specialist II, Chestnut Health Systems
Tragedy marred the graduation ceremony for Brunswick High School in Brunswick, Ohio in early June when four BHS students were killed in an accident just hours before graduation. Two graduating seniors, Jeffrey Chaya and Kevin Fox, both 18 years old, are among the dead. Also killed were Blake Bartchak, 17, and Lexi Poerner, 16. Seventeen-year-old Julia Romito was injured in the crash.
According to the Ohio State Police, Chaya was driving at a high speed when he went over a set of railroad tracks and then lost control. The car went airborne, swerved, hit a tree and flipped over. Lives were lost in that instant, and the lives of several families changed forever.
Later reports from home owners near the crash site indicate that teens often park near that set of railroad tracks and watch their friends speed over the tracks and go airborne. There is no evidence that this was the case in this horrendous accident, but it is clear that high speed was an issue.
Our hearts definitely go out to the parents and families of these young people. Their lives will never be the same, and I cannot imagine the pain and heartache that they are experiencing right now. That heartache will be a constant in their lives for a very long time.
Can anything positive come from this tragedy? It can if it causes parents to take a look at how their own teens behave when they are behind the wheel of a car. Are they safe drivers? We cannot prevent every accident…bad stuff sometimes just happens. We can open our eyes, though, and make a few changes that may make a big difference for our teens.
The part of the human brain that helps us to make reasonable decisions and sound judgment calls is not finished developing until a person reaches their twenties. This is part of the reason that teens are natural risk takers. It is part of their make-up…their brain is just not finished developing.
Does this mean that we should just cross our fingers and hope that nothing bad happens to our teens? Absolutely not!
Just because we can explain why teens take more risks does not mean that we simply accept that behavior and do not try to minimize it…especially when it concerns their behavior behind the wheel.
Insurance companies will tell you that teen insurance rates are high for a reason. Teens get into more accidents than older drivers do. Part of this is due to lack of experience, but part is also due to risk-taking. Risky behaviors such as speeding, texting, eating, listening to loud music, talking on the phone…all combine with less experience behind the wheel and make teenagers a bigger insurance risk.
What can parents do?
There are several things that we can do as parents to help our kids stay safe. Those things might include:
• Have rules about driving behavior. Let your teens know that you have “spies all around” who will tell you if they see unsafe behavior. Follow that up with your friends and neighbors. Ask them to keep an eye out for things like excessive speed through the neighborhood and other reckless behavior.
• Set penalties for infractions. A speeding ticket equals one month (or three months) with no driving privileges, for example. It is inconvenient for everyone, but will get your point across. Speeding is the cause for countless accidents. Treat it like the big deal that it is.
• Ask your teen to sign a driving contract. This works great before a teen ever gets their license, but can also be done retroactively for an older teen. There are sample driving contracts online (www.teendriving.com), but tailor the contract to fit your needs. Include things such as who will pay for gas and insurance, seat belt usage, and whether chauffeuring a sibling is expected.
• Communicate a “NO USE” message in regards to alcohol and other drugs. Make this a condition of continued driving privileges…period.
• Download an application for your teen’s phone that will prevent them from texting while driving. Several safe teen driving “apps” are available for Android or Blackberry, including: tXtBlocker, CellSafety, Textecution, and iZup. Some of these apps also monitor speed, cell phone usage, or provide GPS tracking.
The most important thing to do is to talk, talk, talk with your kids. Let them know that you are not trying to be a “fun sucker” (as my kids so affectionately call me), but that you love them and just want them to be around for a long time. Driving is not a right. It is a privilege that can be taken away if their behavior does not match the responsibility they take on every time they get behind the wheel of a car.
No parent wants to find themselves in the position that the families of the young people from Ohio find themselves…grieving and missing their children.
Some of the material from this article was adapted from the Associate Press (June 4, 2012).