Ten days ago, eight football players in southern New Jersey got into an SUV after a morning practice, headed to a restaurant. The driver, who was licensed, was 17, and his seven passengers ranged in age from 15 to 17. New Jersey’s teen driver law prohibits drivers under 18 from having more than one passenger. The SUV crashed, killing the driver and three passengers.
It is always a delicate task for me to comment on these situations, because I understand too well the devastation that the families of the victims and the community are now experiencing. I only know about the crash what I have summarized above, which comes only from news accounts. There is no justification for anyone, including me, to engage in finger pointing or blame assessing with regard to this tragedy.
Yet one of my missions with this blog is to bring real life situations and illustrations to parents for the purpose of learning from crashes, preventing them, and saving lives, so I will venture so far as to talk about the generic situation, to reiterate several subjects about which I have posted during the past two years.
This New Jersey tragedy reminds us, first, of the well-documented high crash rates of teen drivers with passengers. Research has shown that a teen driver’s likelihood of crashing increases with each passenger. A teen driver with multiple passengers is, without a doubt, a high risk situation.
Since New Jersey has a law restricting a teen driver’s passengers commensurate with the safety research, the recent crash raises the issue of enforcement of passenger restrictions in general and after school-related events in particular. The end of a sports team practice, especially in the days before school has begun, raises several issues: How will students be transported after they leave the school campus? Will they be allowed to ride with other students? Whom do parents, students, and school personnel believe has the responsibility for monitoring post-practice transportation, and does this person or group have a mechanism for knowing and then enforcing which students are legally able to transport other students? Do parents know of the school’s arrangements for transporting? If parents have signed transportation permission forms, are their permissions — or denials of permissions — in force and being monitored by school officials? Are passengers of each teen driver aware of when getting in a car is illegal? I have suggested in several posts that schools establish a website on which students who are legally permitted to transport others can have their names listed, so parents and teens can check the list; the end of a sports practice would seem like a time of day when such a list would be helpful.
On a related subject, I have posted about the practice of newspapers and news websites opening themselves to comments (which may be anonymous and usually are) on teen driver crashes and fatalities, and on teen driver laws. New Jersey, unique in the nation, is experimenting with teen drivers voluntarily placing red stickers on their license plates when they drive, to make their cars identifiable to law enforcement and other drivers). Following the Linwood crash, one such site, NJ.com, posted an article about New Jersey’s teen driver passenger law. The link below is to the comments received, including two from me. The comments range from sensitive and insightful to inappropriate and misinformed, and everything in between. They do, collectively, however, seems to illustrate current debates about several aspects of teen driver laws, so for what it is worth, I have included the link.
I corresponded earlier today about the New Jersey situation with a prominent national researcher on teen driver and auto safety. She lamented the fact that, though we have identified thoroughly high risk situation for teen drivers, the same patterns and the same consequences seem to recur throughout high schools across the country – multiple teens driving illegally. Her comment underscored that educating parents, students, and school officials about passengers is a never-ending challenge.