American youth dying behind the wheel

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 21, 2000

For some its the most liberating experience of their lives. For others, it is the most deadly. A license to drive has become the number-one killer of teens in America, and even a quiet area like Butler County cannot escape the loss of its young people to automobile accidents.

But what can be done? While there are teens who drive safely and responsibly, there are others who let their natural, youthful exuberance be demonstrated behind the wheel on a regular basis; the result can be deadly.

Experts say a lack of experience in the driver's seat is to blame for the marked increase in auto accidents for drivers between the ages of 16 and 21, and while the nation continues to increase speed limits and the number of cars traveling on its highways, some people say 16-years-old is too young for people to be driving unsupervised.

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Butler County resident Linda McVey knows first-hand how tragedy can strike. A little less than seven years ago, McVey's son Robbie died at the age of 21 in an accident while riding in

a car driven by a young driver.

McVey says she feels the driver's experience and abilities were directly responsible for her son's death.

"Had I known the driving record of the person he was with I would never have let him go out," McVey said. "You can't assume that just because a person has a driver's license, and your child says he's okay, that everyone will be safe."

McVey says parental involvement and supervision is the only way to make sure a young person knows how to operate a vehicle safely, and that many parents today do not take the time to properly instruct their teens on the fundamentals of driving.

"A lot of parents these days are not preparing their kids for what they will face on the highways," McVey said. "They're saying "now you're 16 and here's your gift," and the kids are driving off in shiny new cars without really knowing how to operate them safely."

McVey suggested that parents should begin letting their children drive on a regular basis as soon as they are old enough to earn a learner's permit, and that the young drivers be given parental instruction on what is expected of them behind the wheel.

"You have to stress defensive driving and courtesy," she said. "Help them learn how to watch what is going on around them and to always leave themselves an out in every situation.

"They need to be told when it is okay to pass on the freeway and when it's not," she continued, "and the more experience they get with the parent as a passenger, the more responsible they will be when the parent isn't there."

Other states, such as Florida and California, have passed legislation requiring young people to earn a graduated driver's license between the ages of 16 and 18. This license forces young drivers to earn additional driver's privileges by maintaining a safe record.

The restricted licenses limit the times of day a young driver is allowed behind the wheel, and limits the number of people allowed in the car when a young person is driving.

McVey says the graduated restrictions are a good idea and gives parents and law enforcement more control over what young people are doing on the roads.

In fact, however, a bill to require this type of license for young driver's in Alabama was killed in the Senate during the last legislative session, a fact which puzzles McVey and other parents around the state.

Rep. Charles Newton said he believes the bill is very important to the state, and should eventually pass, but he said the legislature has to be careful as to how it restricts the freedoms of the citizens of Alabama.

"A number of other states have passed similar legislation, and studies have shown that these laws do decrease fatalities and serious accidents with young people," he said. "But the problem is that each state has passed slightly different laws, with different restrictions, and the bill we considered was simply picking and choosing from all of those."

Newton said the bill, sponsored by Birmingham Rep. John Hawkins,

placed a number of restrictions on drivers for their first year, including but not limited to limits on the number of passengers a first-year driver is allowed to carry and the hours a first-year driver is allowed to operate a vehicle unsupervised, but he said the bill was probably killed because some of the suggested restrictions went too far. He said the legislature has to carefully consider both sides of all legislation before it passes to prevent laws from being overturned by the courts for legal reasons.

"I think the bill is important for Alabama, and there was a lot of documentation to prove that some of these restrictions have saved lives in other states," he said. "Some of the other restrictions were not as well documented and those are probably the reason why the bill died."

Newton said he expects to see the bill again. He said it is common for a bill not to pass on its first trip through the legislature, but that after the bills are refined and better communicated to the members they often pass later.

Linda McVey is not waiting for the legislature to act. Her 16-year-old son Tiger Smith is facing some strict parental-enforced restrictions that McVey says has taught her son to be a safe and responsible driver. However, she says he is getting more than enough experience behind the wheel.

"Since the day he got his learner's permit he has driven everywhere," McVey said. "If I go to Montgomery, he drives. If I have to go across town, he drives. I want him to get as much experience as he can in as many situations as he can so I know he is prepared."

Tiger's restrictions include, among others, limits on when and where he is allowed to drive unsupervised, and who is allowed in the car with him on those occasions. McVey said that parents should get to know the young people their own kids are driving and riding with, and constantly be re-enforcing safe driving habits. She said parents should hold their children accountable for their actions behind the wheel, and make them earn the privilege of driving. This approach, McVey says, is one way to prevent the type of tragedy her family has suffered through.

"It is something I go to sleep with every night, and something I wake up with every morning," she said. "I am constantly reminded of him, but with the grace of God I am able to get on my feet each day."