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Road Most Dangerous Place for Teens

By Froma Harrop

The day I received my driver's license, I jumped in my mother's car and motored off into teenage freedom. I remember that first solo drive well, because five minutes into it, I braked on a pile of wet leaves and skidded clear across the road.

Fortunately, no one was coming the other way, and I was going only about 35 miles an hour. So two good things happened that day: I didn't have an accident, and I realized that there was a lot to learn about driving.

Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 16- to 20-year-olds, according to a recent article in the American Academy of Pediatrics. Some 5,500 teenagers die every year in auto accidents, and another 27,000 suffer injuries requiring hospitalization.

A car is the most dangerous place a teenager can be. Yet when parents look for safe places to raise their children, they seldom take the teenage-driving factor into consideration. They often choose an exurb where high-school students have to drive long distances on two-lane highways with poor lighting.

No part of the country escapes the heartbreak of promising young lives lost on the roads. I grew up in an old suburb where most kids could walk to school and shopping. When we did drive, we didn't have far to go. And yet our town had its share of teenage driving fatalities.

The tough part for parents is that they can do only so much to protect their children from the hazards of the road. Even if their teens are sober and utterly responsible, they are still novices behind the wheel. The medical journal found that driver inexperience causes the most teen road deaths. The highest crash rate is in the first month after young people obtain a license.

And these green motorists must also deal with other reckless drivers. I knew the grieving parent of a high-school student who was killed on a country road after working late at a restaurant. She had merely stopped at a red light, when a drunk rammed right into her car and kept going.

Although teens are less likely to drive under the influence than adults, adding alcohol to their lack of experience can be especially lethal. Two years ago, high school seniors in an upscale suburb near me converged on a house where alcohol flowed freely. Three of them sped off in a parent's Acura Integra and plowed it into a tree. Two boys died, and one was grievously injured. They were not wearing seatbelts.

I would wager that had those boys survived into their mature 20s, they would not have piled into a car with a driver who was drunk, according to two of the grieving parents (the toxicology reports have not been released). They would have worn seatbelts. But put together a new driver, alcohol and the risk-taking of adolescence, and you have a formula for disaster.

I've never, knock wood, been in a car accident. But I don't care to count the times I've come close. There were folks on cell phones, making left turns into my path. There were crazies weaving from lane to lane on a highway. And there were always the erratic drivers handicapped by booze, drugs or lack of sleep. And sometimes -- let me admit it -- I was at fault, fiddling with my iPod instead of paying full attention to the road.

The less teenagers drive, and the slower the traffic when they do, the less risk they'll face. Vehicular accidents take more young lives than drugs, violence or risky sex. The safest neighborhood for young people, I'm convinced, is the one in which they can walk home.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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