STOP GIVING KIDS THE AUTOMOBILE “DEATH PENALTY”

The headline read “16-Year Old Driver Killed, Second Teen Injured in Wreck” and it is all too familiar. So familiar in fact that we have come to accept it. We have become complacent and somehow been able to sweep those tragedies to the backs of our minds. We accept the horror and go on with our lives. It seems that there is no solution to the problem of teen deaths due to auto accidents.

When I was a teen, back in the sixties, we lost at least two kids out of our class (’65) due to auto accidents. Since that time I have listened to many theories as to why the death count is so high. The experts say, kids don’t pay attention, they are inexperienced, they drive too fast, they make bad decisions, and some of them drink and drive.
Yes, those all are true and when I was sixteen, I was guilty of all those things, yet I survived. My friends and I survived not because we were better drivers but because we were lucky.

I remember one night, driving my Dad’s 1964 Corvair. Gary Zeysing was my front seat passenger and we were driving east on Sandpoint, coming from Smith Road to the curves behind Elmhurst High School. I was going too fast for the curve and the car slid off the road to the right, down the embankment and towards a telephone pole.

As the right two wheels left the road, the car slanted towards the ditch and I was thrown all the way over to the passenger side, which put me nearly sitting on Zeysings’ lap. I was able to hold onto the steering wheel with my left hand, and as we headed towards the bottom of the ditch the wheels caught traction and we came right back up on the road. Had I been going a little bit faster we would have caught the pole, or rolled, or who knows what.

I was guilty…guilty of a misjudgment. And the penalty can be severe. You may get the death penalty for a tiny miscalculation…and who would be at fault?

I’ll tell you who would not be at fault. My parents would not be at fault. My dad drove an ambulance for the Volunteer Fire Department. He had been to accidents where kids had been killed. He had experienced the horror of such tragedies and had explained them to me as well as to the rest of my brothers and sister, yet each of us had still been involved in accidents. Luckily they were mostly fender benders, but still…all his preaching had fallen on deaf ears. I think the reason kids don’t listen is that parents are third on their list of priorities. Peer pressure is the number one influence, teachers are number two and parents are clear down the list at number three. The kids may hear you, but the words do not sink in for about six years. By then it may be too late.

There is no one that could love their kids more than our parents loved us, and I am sure it is just as true for the parents that recently lost their kids in accidents. You love them so much and they are taken away because of a minor error in judgment. To tell these parents that they might have done something or said something that would have prevented these tragedies is terribly unfair. The truth is, no matter how good the Shepard, you sometimes lose a sheep and my heart goes out to those families who are suffering over these tragic losses.

Back in the sixties, Ralph Nader was harping on the un-safeness of the Corvair. His claim was that the Corvair was a death trap. I remember being outraged that he would attack the Corvair. It was a great little car with an air-cooled rear-engine and we swore that Ralph Nader was an idiot. How could one man sabotage a cute little vehicle like a Corvair? It was as safe as any other automobile, and therein lays the crux of the problem. They are all unsafe.

Nader wrote a book, titled ‘Unsafe At Any Speed,” and as much as I disliked Nader, I have to admit that he was right on the money. Automobiles are unsafe at any speed!

No…I am not blaming the automakers for these tragic accidents; I’m blaming the kids. But my point is, let’s stop giving kids the death penalty for making minor errors in judgement.

How do we go about this? The technology has been around for a long time. If we can make an open wheeled race car, that can hit the wall at Indy, going over 200 mph, and have the driver walk away from the debris with no injuries, then we can make a beginner car for teenagers that will keep them safe.

In fact, I have heard of programs like that. Supposedly, the government built a safe vehicle and the automakers destroyed it. I don’t know if the story is true or not, but it would be interesting to look into the rumor.

My Granddaughter is 17 years old. She has been in four major accidents, one of which resulted in a fatality. She has survived but only because she has been lucky. Another of my grandchildren is just learning to ride a bicycle. She has training wheels on her new two-wheeler. How can we put training wheels on their bikes when they are 5 and then 11 years later give them the keys to a potential death trap?

The idea is a simple one. Make a car for beginning drivers. Make it totally safe. Make them drive it for three years, accident free, before giving them a choice of buying a normal car. Make the cars all the same color, the same size and shape, and with a governor on the engine that holds the speed down to a safe level. Put in a navigational chip like the OnStar system so they can be traced to wherever they say they are going, and when in doubt, check it.

The government could let the design out for bid and give the contract to any automobile manufacturer that would meet the criteria. If the American manufacturers can’t do it, let the contract out to anyone who can. It would be no different then letting out the bid for the Jeeps back in the pre-war years. And this is the same as a war, a war we have been losing.

Across the United States, 5,691 teenagers died in motor vehicle crashes in 2003, an average of nearly 16 teenagers killed per day (according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Enough is enough. This is unacceptable. Start a pilot program in Fort Wayne or any city in the U.S. We have accepted this insanity far too long. If one of our legislatures would start the process today then maybe in 10 to 15 years, we would have a workable solution to a very deadly problem.

Give up harping about teenage smoking, teenage drugs, teenage pregnancy, and teenage fat assess. Attack the number one health problem today, teenage driving.

It would be fine with me if I never had to write or read another headline about teens being killed in an auto accident.

The Waynedale News Staff

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