Two weeks ago, at 1:00 a.m. on a Thursday, two Massachusetts teenage girls died when their SUV rammed a utility pole. The Jaws of Life had to be employed to remove the bodies of Shauna Murphy, 17, and her sister Meghan, 15, and the still-living Melissa Smith, 15. So smashed was the upside-down car, firemen said, you couldn’t tell who was driving.
Police have still not been able to identify the driver, though the Boston Globe‘s follow-up story notes that only Shauna Murphy was legally old enough to drive. Shauna Smith is too seriously injured to talk. Police say the girls had not been drinking.
I might not have paid much attention to this story, except that it hit close to home. One of our regular babysitters came to work for us when she was 19, just out of high school. Twice in the next year, Ashley called me, unable to come to work. She had to rally to the side of some friend involved in a fatal car crash. Ashley had a lot of friends through her former high school sorority. “It feels like I’m going to a funeral once a month,” she told me, so often were sorority sisters killed on the highway.
In the most highly publicized of the two accidents for which Ashley missed work, a friend ran a car off a notoriously dangerous twisty road near Gloucester in the middle of the night and smashed into a tree. The passenger, thrown from the vehicle, died. Ashley’s friend, badly injured, was eventually charged with vehicular manslaughter.
“Oh, no, she won’t go to jail,” Ashley kept saying as she gave me updates on the case in the weeks following. She was quite sure.
She was right. The judge reduced the charges, convicted, and sentenced the young driver to probation.
I presume she also lost her driver’s license, which strikes me as almost irrelevant by case’s end.
INSURANCE INDUSTRY STATS TELL US that a wildly disproportionate percentage of automobile accidents involve young or new drivers. (The two are usually the same.) As I continued to notice headline-making fatal crashes in Massachusetts, I observed some additional elements: 1) late hours; 2) high speed; 3) no seat belts; and 4) girls. The ill-fated youths had usually not been drinking. But girls sure seemed to get into lots of wrecks.
At my own instigation, and with (probably) no result, I talked with Ashley about driving. I told her how highly skewed were the accident stats toward youth. I told the story of my old motorcycle crash, when I was still young and in my first year on the bike. I cautioned her that she did not really know yet how a car behaved in different conditions or how she herself would react under stress.
In one ear, as I say. She did not like these discussions much, so I didn’t pursue them. Ashley always displayed total responsibility with us. On her own for the first time, Ashley did what all girls her age probably do. She would think nothing of taking an impulse trip, over a day and a half, to Montreal and back, a 500-mile drive, four girls packed into an old and not very well maintained community college student’s economy sedan. She stayed up late; I learned never to phone Ashley before 9 a.m. She did not always think ahead very well. I once got a despairing call from her, saying she was stuck in Boston. She had gone to the Patriots’ victory party at noon on City Hall Plaza. So had a million other people. She tended to go along with what friends wanted. Once, one asked her to accompany her to a tattoo parlor; she was scared. Ashley went and got a tattoo, too (her second), to make her friend feel better.
BOYS BEHAVE THE SAME way. So why do so many more accident reports seem to include all-girl-occupied cars? I can speculate. Boys’ probably wider athletic experience may give them an edge in handling cars that veer out of control. Boys may well have taken an interest in auto racing and handling, may even have done some controlled skid experiments in Dad’s car. Or the police may scrutinize boys more closely and stop them more often.
All such accidents make fodder for the pols. Massachusetts being no exception, local Republican Rep. Bradford Hill has introduced a bill that increases the number of hours parents must supervise their teen’s driving before age 16, under the “learner’s permit” stage. The law currently requires 12 hours; the bill increases that to 30.
That strikes me as scarcely effectual. Back when I was a liberal, gung-ho for mass transit and opposed to urban sprawl, I advocated raising the driving age to 21. Outraged parents, I reasoned, would be so frustrated at having to drive their teens everywhere that they would form a powerful lobby for more trains and buses. Yeah, right. In Denver, Salt Lake, Houston, outraged parents and teens would have hung a legislator who proposed such a thing. We can’t rebuild our entire society to save a few teen lives. The transportation wars were over 50 years ago. The car won.
AND SOCIAL ENGINEERING CAN be carried only so far. But perhaps we could extend an existing law enforcement habit and make it effective against the teen fatality trends. Police, as I have noted, tend to stop teenage boys in cars. It’s profiling, of course, but entirely understandable, and it’s been going on for decades. Why not give cops a reason for stopping under-21s of both sexes? Our state’s insurance lobbyists have been pushing for a so-called “primary seat belt law.” Such would make the failure to wear a seatbelt a traffic violation. The legislators, driven by the people’s loathing for giving the police any additional reason to stop them, have opposed the measure every time it’s come up.
I think this limited measure could pass, however. Critics would complain that the insurance industry, having once gotten its nose inside the tent, will continue to push the law’s extension to all drivers. Very possibly. But the under-21 law could also serve as a test. Leave it for a year, while police scrutinize drivers and cars owned by the under-21 set. There should be a statistical drop in youthful traffic deaths.
We might also consider a driving curfew for under-21s.
These two measures being darned near unthinkable, however, I propose an expensive alternative: High-speed hazard driving courses for all drive-training students.