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Teen Driver Law Works Only if Parents Pay Attention

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Whenever young people are killed in vehicle accidents, the loss and sense of despair is enormous.

Multiply it a thousand times when those deaths occur as a result of teen drivers breaking laws specifically designed to safeguard them from their own inexperience.

The recent accident that killed two Westlake teenagers and injured two others in the early morning of Dec. 29, is an example of such tragedy.

When Kenneth Marshall Glass, 16, slid behind the wheel of his family’s Mercedes-Benz station wagon and took three friends on the ride that ended in tragedy, he had only a provisional driver’s license.

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Under California’s 31/2-year-old graduated driver’s license law, Glass was prohibited from driving with passengers under the age of 20 unless accompanied by a licensed driver 25 or older. The provisional license also was supposed to keep him from driving between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.

Ventura County sheriff’s deputies say Glass’ parents were out of town on a ski trip. A department spokeswoman said investigators do not know whether the teen had his parents’ permission to drive the vehicle at night without an adult, or took the car without their approval.

What is apparent, according to Ventura County sheriff’s deputies, is that Glass violated both the driver’s license law and speed law when he took his friends out that night to get something to eat.

The preliminary investigation indicates the car was moving at 106 mph when Glass lost control and slammed into a wall about 1 a.m. on Westlake Boulevard near Hillcrest Drive, a stretch of road with a 45 mph speed limit.

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Glass and his good friend Jordan Bass, also 16, died at the scene.

Two others in the vehicle, Joshua Kuai, 16, of Westlake Village, and Jenae Chu, 16, of Thousand Oaks, survived the accident but were hospitalized with injuries.

All the car’s occupants were wearing seat belts, and police say there was no sign at the scene of alcohol or drugs.

California has one of the strictest teen driving laws in the country, but it works only when people obey it.

Study after study have shown that the more teenage passengers in a vehicle driven by a young and inexperienced driver, the greater the risk of an accident.

There’s no excuse for parents or their teenagers to try to circumvent the law. Sure, parents tire of chauffeuring their children to music lessons, games or school events. Many of them can’t wait for their teens to have their own vehicle.

“But at what price is that convenience? Those are your children,” says Candysse Miller of the Insurance Information Network of California.

“You can have a great law on the books, but if it’s not being followed, it’s not going to save their lives.... We’ve seen that the worst accidents happen at night when there are teens alone in vehicles,” Miller says.

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Just look at the statistics. Perhaps teens and their parents should be required to memorize them.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beginning drivers have the highest rates of teenage passenger deaths in their vehicles, per licensed driver and miles driven, and they have the highest percentage of crashes related to speeding, according to Farmers Insurance Group.

A study two years ago by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that by the time a 16- or 17-year-old driver has three passengers of any age in the car, the chance of getting into a fatal crash is three times higher than if there were no passengers.

The risk is even higher for boys carrying teenage passengers, according to the study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

In California, the most recent statistics from the California Highway Patrol show that drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 were involved in 480 fatal accidents and 37,546 injury accidents in 2000. That’s up from 469 fatal teen accidents and 35,733 injury accidents in 1999.

“Clearly, there’s not anywhere near full compliance” with the tough teen licensing laws, says Dr. Alan Williams, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Who’s to blame? Do we need stricter enforcement of the regulations under the provisional licenses? Miller says police in California can’t stop a teen driver with kids in the car just because he may look as if he’s driving with a provisional license. The driver must be stopped for a primary offense such as speeding or reckless driving.

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Newspaper reports all described Kenneth Glass as a fine young man with a promising future. But kids are kids, and even the nicest and brightest of them can get silly and reckless, or buckle under to peer pressure.

No matter how many thrilling speed chases they see in movies, kids need to know that slamming into a wall at 100 miles a hour is anything but glamorous.

As for parents, they have control of the keys to the car. They also control whether a minor owns a vehicle.

And finally, if parents fear their teen is violating terms of a provisional license or engaging in reckless driving, they can contact the Department of Motor Vehicles and request that their child’s license be canceled.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com


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