Commentary

Saunders: When reckless teenage behavior hurts us all

Young people will take risks, but we can teach safety

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 

As soon as Fred Gerkens’ son is old enough to drive, Gerkens plans on taking him out to a deserted country road and making him run off it.

Why? Because he loves the boy — and because he knows that many, many fatal accidents involving young drivers result from them driving off the side of the road, panicking when their tires touch gravel, and then yanking the steering wheel in a panic to get back onto the road.

It’s what cops call “over-correcting,” and officials think it was a factor in the accident that killed two Orange County 16-year-olds just over a week ago.

State troopers said William Underhill was racing his Ford F250 pickup truck against a truck driven by Collin Parker Lunsford when he ran off the left side of the rural road, over-corrected, then ran off the right side, hitting a mailbox and a tree. Underhill and Kacie Chamberlain were killed. Two other teenage passengers were injured.

Lunsford has been charged with two counts of misdemeanor death by vehicle.

After reading about yet two more young people dying in a traffic accident, Gerkens, of Chapel Hill, wrote, “Once my son starts driving, I’m planning on finding a country road, slowing him way down, and trying to get him to intentionally drop off the edge and then get back on.”

Shouldn’t teaching young drivers how to navigate a 2,000-pound piece of machinery be part of the driver’s ed curriculum? Gerkens asked.

Most definitely, but driving instructors to whom I’ve spoken over the years said insurance companies prohibit them from teaching young drivers how to get safely back onto the road.

Another tragedy

For the second straight year, almost before the last strains of “Auld Lang Syne” to herald the new year have faded, a Triangle family has been singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” or playing a funeral dirge for a young family member.

A year ago this week, we ran a story and a picture of six grief-wracked high school girls leaving the funeral of a 17-year-old classmate who’d died in an alcohol-related accident.

Now, more parents who know that same agony must contend with yet another tragic, wholly preventable loss.

At a remove of decades from our own teenage years, many of us find it incomprehensible that the barrage of news stories featuring heartbroken friends and relatives doesn’t make kids act responsibly, doesn’timbue them with a maturity that would prevent them from getting behind the wheel after drinking or riding with someone who has.

After all, we never behaved so recklessly, did we?

Yes, we did.

‘With the territory’

Licensed professional therapist Barbara Jean Howell told me last year, after several teens died from reckless behavior within a short period, that making bad decisions “goes with the territory” of being a teen. “The part of their brain that deals with decision-making isn’t fully developed until they’re 22 or 23 years old.”

“Youth” doesn’t mean that they’re blameless, but it does mean that when you look at your teenage son after he’s committed yet another outrage and think “There’s something wrong with that boy,” you’re probably right. They often outgrow whatever it is, but too often, when alcohol and automobiles and excessive speed are involved, they don’t get the chance.

Oh, yeah: For the record, driving instructors say that if you run off the side of the road, you should take your foot off the accelerator, keep it off the brakes and just let the car slow down until you find a safe place to come back onto the road.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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