tampabay.com

To save our kids, take their car keys

By SANDRA THOMPSON
Published October 14, 2006


Last weekend a boy, only 17, was killed in a car crash. His seven friends, all riding along with him in his Jeep, were rushed to emergency rooms.

This is tragic, of course, and the cause of unimaginable pain for survivors, but other than the number of kids in the car, it's not unusual. Kids, teenagers, are killed all the time on our roads.

The photographs we saw last week of the sobbing high school friends, the flowers and stuffed animals they offered as memorials are photos we've seen before - different faces, different crashes, different deaths.

Why do we allow it to keep going on?

If something else were routinely killing our kids - a serial murderer, a disease - we would do everything - everything - in our power to stop it.

But since it's cars, well, we don't do much.

Almost 10 years ago, Florida went to graduated licensing. If you're younger than 18, you must have had a learner's permit for a year with no traffic convictions before you're eligible for a driver's license. A 16-year-old with a license is restricted to driving between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.; at 17, between 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. Some states also restrict the number of passengers in the car.

Restrictions are good, but they don't go directly to the heart of the problem.

At 16, 17, most kids are too immature to drive. Period.

I hate to say that, but go over to your neighborhood high school a little after school lets out. The kids have their friends piled in the car, laughing and talking and squealing, the CD player is blasting and, hey, they feel like they just got out of jail. They're free! They're not looking where they're going; they're probably not wearing seat belts.

Most of them don't crash. It's daytime. Most kids crash at night, with other kids in the car. The more kids, the greater likelihood of a crash.

But it can happen anytime.

It happened to us. We were having dinner when the phone rang, and I heard those awful words - crash, accident - but lucky for us, my daughter was speaking those words. Nobody was hurt, it was the other driver's fault he was in high school, too and her car went to the shop.

We saw the second crash. A high school friend - a boy - was following her home late at night. She pulled up in front of our house, and he smashed right into the back of her car.

"Testosterone," my husband said.

It wasn't a joke. Raging hormones cause kids to use bad judgment. And - surprise, surprise - science has seconded what parents of teenagers already knew: The areas of the brain that weigh consequences and suppress impulses aren't operating all that well, and won't be until kids are about 25.

Yet we give them deadly vehicles to drive around.

We almost have to.

How else can they get places?

What about the bus? I suggested to a friend whose kid had ruined his car. Easy enough for me to say, since it wasn't my kid.

And, let's face it: It's just not done. Kids today drive.

The whole way we live has to change if we really want to save kids' lives. Keep them out of the driver's seat until they're 18. At that point, I guess we have to let them drive cars, since we let them drive tanks.

Even better, don't let them drive anything until they're 21.

Now what are the chances we'll do that?

Sandra Thompson, a Tampa writer, can be reached at sandrathompson 125@tampabay.rr.com City Life appears on Saturday.