National and state data bucks recent rash of teen crashes

CINCINNATI - Bruce Thornton relies on a stock of stories from years as a police officer to now teach teens about the consequences of poor driving habits.

He has about 10 stories he regularly shares.

"The stories aren't pretty, and I don't choose to make them pretty," said Thornton, who spent 13 years as a police officer in Chatham, Mass. For the past five years, he has been teaching driving at the  AAAA International Driving School Inc., based in Finneytown. 

Thornton details a car accident that killed four teens after they unknowingly smoked marijuana laced with Phencyclidine or Angel Dust at a party years ago in Chatham.

Thornton said the teens don't like like the graphic stories: "I think they respect it, even though they don't like it."

Law enforcement officers in Ohio have fewer stories to tell as the number of teen deaths have dropped in the last five years, despite a recent rash of fatal teen crashes.

  • Six teens, ages 14 to 19, were killed last month in Warren, Ohio, when the SUV they were in sped down a 35-mph road, hit a guard rail and flipped into a pond.
  • Three South Ripley High School students died last month after two pickup trucks collided in Osgood, Ind.
  • Last November, three Bellbrook High School students died after an accident in Sugarcreek Township just outside of Dayton.



The number of fatal accidents in which a teen was driving fell from 161 in 2008 to 118 in 2012, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The number of crashes involving teen drivers dropped 26 percent -- or from 56,713 to 41,454 - from 2008 through 2012.

The data, which is collected annually, focuses on the number of teen drivers involved in a crash, not who was deemed at fault in the crash, said Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Anne Ralston.

In Kentucky, the declining trend is markedly similar. The number of fatal accidents in which a teen was driving fell from 92 in 2008 to 64 in 2011, a drop of more than 30 percent, according to the Kentucky State Police. Statistics were not immediately available for 2012. 

She said teens who have been involved in a crash are a captive audience:

"We take the opportunity to talk to them about making good decisions, which includes not having too many people in the car or using a device while driving," Ralston said. "We can tailor our education and awareness efforts to them."

The statewide trend coincides with a national study released Thursday. The report by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm Insurance indicates that from 2005 to 2011, deaths in crashes with teens behind the wheel fell by nearly one-half from 2,399 to 1,280 people.

The study also indicates the number of passengers killed with a teen behind the wheel from 2005 to 2011 decreased nearly 50 percent.

To help lower the number of distractions, Ohio tightened up laws that affect teen drivers in 2007. As part of that mandate, drivers under the age of 17 can only have one non-family passenger in the car with them, unless they have the driver's parent or guardian in the car at the same time.

Kentucky passed a similar law, which restricts licensed drivers under 18 from driving between midnight and 6 a.m. and limits the number of unrelated passengers under 20 to one.

Last month, Ohio texting-while-driving ban went into effect. Teens are barred from using any hand-held electronic device while driving. In Kentucky, texting and driving is banned for all drivers and is a primary offense.

"They're the most inexperienced and that just reinforces that need to be doing nothing but driving," Ralston said. "Driving is a complex behavior, both physical and cognitive."

From the instructor's eye

Many teen crashes are a result of inexperience, both Thornton and Ralston said. Teens often experience hazards on the roadway they've never seen before, and as a result, don't know how to respond.

That's why Thornton teaches students to scan the roadway, rather than focus on a fixed point ahead them, such as a vehicle or lane lines. By scanning, teen drivers can anticipate the changes in the roadway that may lead to a crash, he said.

"They don't know what to expect if someone blows through a red light, for example," Thornton said. "That inexperience kind of freezes them for two seconds, and you don't have the two seconds (to spare), and that's the problem."

Even before Thornton and a driving student hit the road for lessons, they spend about 30 to 45 minutes in the vehicle going over possible scenarios they may face on the road. The checklist includes everything from a T-bone collision to jump starting a battery.

The checklist, "26 Things That Will Cause You Harm," even mentions "bank robber" as a potential danger for young drivers.

"I look at it as being honest with the student," Thornton said. "Almost every single one has little story behind it."

Turning down music to tune in to the road

Driving is about being prepared for Connor Horne, 16, a student at Northwest High School in Colerain Township.

"You don't know what you can encounter on the road," he said.

The checklist is an effective tool, but he also relies on "drowning out" distractions when he's behind the wheel. Loud music is most distracting for him.

"I try to drown it out, and if I can't, I just turn it off," Horne said. "I don't really think about all the stuff that can happen that you can die from, but it definitely gets you thinking."

Horne said he feels a responsibility to other drivers while on the road, because when he witnesses poor driving, he knows that could cause damage to others, too. 

Horne listened to his older brother, who has been behind the wheel a full two years longer, he said. 

"'Wear your seatbelt', that's what I hear almost every single day," Horne said. "Even our principal says it over the announcements every day."

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