By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Within eight months of getting his driver's license, 17-year-old Ross Bender was ticketed twice and ordered by the state to restrict his driving to and from work or school.
But on Memorial Day, he was behind the wheel, driving home after a fishing trip. His car veered about 18 feet and collided with a van.
Ross' story, little driver's education followed by a couple of tickets and a crash, is not unusual for teen drivers in Florida. His also had a sadly familiar ending. He was killed last Monday in St. Petersburg just 2 miles from his home.
Florida's teen drivers have a higher rate of car crashes and fatal accidents than any other age group in the state. In the Tampa Bay area alone this year, investigators say 10 teen drivers have been at fault in fatal crashes. Each was caused, according to investigators, when they lost control of their cars.
A fast car. No seat belt. The feeling of invincibility. They add up to a parent's worst nightmare.
"When it's a Friday night, and the radio is up and the windows are down and there's four kids in the car, they're not thinking about driver's education," said Chuck Hurley, vice president of highway safety for the National Safety Council in Washington, D.C.
No one is sure yet what happened to Ross, a popular St. Petersburg High School junior and baseball player.
He had been out with friends most of the night, "drinking a little bit here and there" and dancing to Salsa music, said a friend, Owen Smith, 16. Then Ross got up early on Memorial Day to go fishing.
He and Owen were among 11 people on a charter boat to Longboat Key. Water, soda and Bud Lite sat in the boat cooler, but Owen said Ross did not drink any beer.
Charter Capt. Jay Mastry, who met Ross through a church friend, said he did not see Ross drink beer.
"He knew my position," Mastry said. "He didn't do it in front of me. The one thing I always focused on was him staying healthy if he was going to achieve his goals."
After five hours of fishing, they motored back to St. Petersburg. Ross and Owen scrubbed Mastry's boat, then they left for Owen's sister's house. Ross hung out there, then left for his parents' waterfront home on Snell Isle.
He was alone in the car. The shoulder harness was strapped across his chest, police said, but the lap belt was not fastened. His CD player was mounted in the trunk, and he did not have a cell phone.
At 1:28 p.m, his 1992 Mazda 626, eastbound on 40th Avenue NE, veered out of the lane and collided with a Ford Windstar, westbound on 40th Avenue. Police said he was going 45 to 50 mph. The speed limit there is 40 mph.
But Ross shouldn't have been at the wheel at all.
State records show he got a ticket in November 2000 for violating the teen driving restriction. When you're under 17, you cannot drive from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. without someone 21 or older with you.
A month later, Ross got a ticket for failing to obey a traffic sign. Because he was 16 and had accumulated six points, the state imposed restrictions on his driving for business purposes only until January 2002.
"He was only supposed to be driving to and from work or school," said Steve Fielder, a spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Three months ago, the state DHSMV addressed a letter to Ross at his parents' house, notifying him of the restriction. Ross was told to get a new license that showed the restriction. He never did.
"I cannot guarantee you it got to his hands," Fielder said of the letter, which was sent regular mail.
The state DHSMV does not notify parents or make follow-up telephone calls when teen drivers get in trouble. It would be too burdensome, Fielder said. The state issued 14-million drivers' licenses to residents in 2000.
"It's just a manpower issue," Fielder said.
It is unclear whether Ross' parents, David and Carmen Bender, knew of Ross' driving troubles. They buried their son Friday.
Drivers 15 to 19 years old have the highest death and crash rates of any age group in Florida. Nationwide, teen drivers are also involved in more motor vehicle crashes than any other group; crashes also are the leading cause of death for them.
Why are teens such poor drivers? Theories abound.
Teens think they're indestructible, and cars become symbolic extensions of themselves, said Dr. Humberto Nagera, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida School of Medicine.
"They can go by an accident and see someone wrapped around a lamppost, and they won't believe that can happen to them," he said.
Another problem is teens don't get enough driving practice. The days of intensive driver's education are over.
At the time of his death, Ross was enrolled in a driver's education class with 35 students at St. Petersburg High School. His death marked the first time someone was killed while taking the class, said Jim Mewha, one of Ross' instructors.
"It bothers me," Mewha said. "Our job is to try to get through to the kids. To get them to understand this is serious. All of a sudden, you get this news, and you wonder if there's something I could have done or explained better."
Over the 18-week semester, Ross got good marks. In April, though, an instructor noted "girl watching; wrong lane." Still, he had an A going into final exams.
In class, Ross got to drive only six times -- a total of 90 minutes. The state once mandated six hours behind the wheel and 30 classroom hours. Now, those are just recommendations.
The state once required driver's education as a prerequisite for a license. That's not so now.
Mewha's classroom contains scary reminders: Newspaper clippings dot the bulletin board. "Car kills mom strolling with baby;" "Car careens into pond; teen dies;" and "They fled, police chased, and lives are shattered."
Mewha, who has taught driver's education for 32 years, said that after Ross' crash, he wanted to preach to the students about safety.
"I wanted to come in and say, "Hey, how many of you are driving too fast? How many of you have thought you could be in a collision?' " he said. "That was my first reaction, but there were too many kids hurting who didn't need a brow-beating over the head."
Then again, Mewha said, the potential for danger does not sink in.
"With teenagers, it seems to roll off their back a little bit," he said. "I don't think it has a lasting effect. But it will for some."
There's no question that some teenagers just make poor judgments while driving. They deal with distractions from CD players and cell phones. They drive with little sleep or lots of friends. And frequently, alcohol or other drugs are present, too.
St. Petersburg police Officer J.C. Pratt has ruled out mechanical failure as a cause of Ross' crash. The only eyewitness said he did not notice anything Ross was doing in the car, just that his car slowly drifted into the opposite lane.
"That leads me more to, "Is it alcohol? Is it drugs? Did he fall asleep? Is it a medical condition?' " said Pratt, who is awaiting results from an autopsy and toxicology tests conducted by the medical examiner's office. There was no indication of alcohol or drug use at the scene.
Police and driving experts say parents can make a difference in a child's safety. They can set limits. No sports cars. No driving on interstates. No more than two passengers.
"The parent can revoke their license at any time," said Hurley, the National Security Council vice president.
Ross' death served as a horrible reminder to parents like Melanie Toppe of St. Petersburg. Her 16-year-old daughter, Jessica, was in a recent car accident and totaled a 2000 black Mustang, a gift for her 16th birthday.
She and her husband, John Toppe, an architect, bought the Mustang because the car did well on crash tests.
Luckily, Jessica was not injured.
"As soon as they leave the house by themselves, your heart is in your throat," said Mrs. Toppe, 52. "It's every mother's nightmare: The phone rings, and it's, "Mom, I had an accident.' "
- Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.