Fatal Turn: The Lives of Too Many Young Drivers Have Taken A

By Robin Fitzgerald, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

May 28–GULFPORT — Teenage drivers in South Mississippi are killing themselves and others in record-breaking numbers.

It’s not that they plan to, but the trend in teen-involved traffic deaths leaves law enforcement officials at a loss as to how to explain why the numbers keep climbing.

Since January, nine crashes involving teenagers have killed 16 area young people. Half the traffic deaths this year involved teen drivers, based on a Sun Herald review of 24 fatal crashes with a total of 32 deaths. Since Christmas Eve, six other youths have died in local or regional crashes, raising the youth death toll to 22 since Dec. 24.

Area coroners said they can’t remember when as many youths have died in crashes.

Could it be teenagers’ lack of experience behind the wheel? The distractions of cell phones, music and friends? National traffic-safety studies have long indicated these as leading factors in teen-involved crashes. A new study covering 10 years of statistics indicates the majority of fatal crashes with teen drivers kill the drivers or their passengers.

With the trend in South Mississippi, one factor could be that life “has turned upside down for everyone” since Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29, as State Trooper Johnny Poulos put it.

“Many teen hangouts are gone and teens could be spending more time in vehicles because they don’t have anywhere to go,” Poulos said.

“But I don’t think there’s any one reason. The fatal crashes I haven’t worked, I’ve followed. Speeding contributed to some. Some pulled out in front of another vehicle. Maybe they’re not paying attention, not being focused. We could speculate on it all day long and probably never figure it all out.”

One of several crashes that gnaw at his memory occurred after two teenage boys argued over which CD to play.

“When you give the keys to a teenager, at that age and with that mentality, that’s a lot of power to give,” Poulos said.

Some national safety groups recommend legislation to forbid teen drivers from carrying passengers and to require at least 50 hours of adult-supervised driving during the learner’s permit stage.

Some teenagers are more mature than others, said Poulos, who gave traffic-safety programs at 75 percent of Coast schools in the past year.

“Driver safety needs to begin at home with parents staying on their kids about safety, and setting a good example,” Poulos said, “and the schools need to do more to promote driver education.”

A snap decision can quickly turn tragic, no matter how responsible your teenager appears to be, said April Parker of Wade. Her daughter, Whitlee Lynae Davis, 16, died May 8 when she ran a stop sign on her way to school.

“She was pure. She lived life to its fullest. Decisions were important to her,” Parker said. “She didn’t drink or smoke. She recently wrote an essay on how she wanted to make the right decisions because she didn’t want to ruin her reputation or God’s plan for her life.”

Parker said she believes her daughter’s death was for a purpose.

“It hurts,” Parker said. “But maybe God’s plan for her life was to show others, teenagers and adults, how you can’t be too careful when you drive, how you need to make sure you’re right with God.”

Young drivers are more likely to engage in unsafe driving behaviors such as speeding, tailgating and weaving in and out of traffic, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drivers aged 15 to 20 make up 6 percent of the driving population, but account for 14 percent of all driver-involved fatal crashes in 2003, one NHTSA study shows.

A new study, by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, shows drivers aged 15 to 17 killed 30,917 people from 1995 through 2004. One-third of those killed were the teen drivers. Another third were their passengers.

South Mississippi’s increase in teen traffic deaths could have something to do with an increase in traffic during hurricane recovery, said Master Sgt. Joe Gazzo, a veteran state trooper.

Also, teens are more likely to have “

‘the Superman syndrome,’ believing ‘it would never happen to me,’

” said Gazzo.

“The hardest part of our job is knocking on that door to tell a parent their kid is dead. A lot of it is kids just making that wrong decision.”

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Deaths of our children

A Sun Herald review of 24 fatal crashes in South Mississippi since January shows 16 of 32 deaths occurred in nine crashes involving teenage or young-adult drivers. Six more area youths have died in crashes since Dec. 24, raising the youth death toll to 22 since Christmas Eve. A summary of the crashes, by date, with details from law enforcement agencies and county coroners:

— Dec. 24: Dustin Triplett, 17, and Reginald Abrams, 18, both of Gulfport, died in unrelated one-vehicle crashes in Harrison County after the driver lost control. Triplett tried to pass another vehicle on Shaw Road near Stiles Road at 3:48 p.m. when his pickup flipped. Abrams was a passenger in a crash at 7:24 p.m. on Kiln-DeLisle Road. The driver and two others were injured.

In Forrest County, Biloxi resident Brandon Spears, 14, and Biloxi native Zakiya Emil Pringle, 17, died in the Carnes community after delivering Christmas presents to a relative. Their teenage driver swerved to avoid another vehicle and lost control. Spears was an 8th-grader at Biloxi Junior High. Pringle, a former classmate, had moved to Memphis after Hurricane Katrina displaced his family.

— Jan. 2: Christopher Bush, 19, lost control of his vehicle at U.S. 90 near Riley Road in Gautier around 4 p.m. The vehicle flipped several times. The Gautier High graduate was enrolled at the Jackson County campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

— Jan. 12: Six college students died and two friends were injured when the extended-cab pickup they were in was struck by a gravel truck on Mississippi 26 near Wiggins around 3:30 a.m. Their vehicle was stationary, facing north, on the foggy east-west highway. The six who died, all graduates of Mercy Cross High in Biloxi, were Brittany Marie Jordan, 18, and her sister, Carley Taryn Jordan, 20, both of Ocean Springs; William “Jerrod” Thompson, Richard G. O’Barr, and Candice Newman, all 20, and Joshua Scott Bozeman, 21, all of Biloxi. Their driver, 21, and another friend, 20, were hospitalized. Friends and family have said the students were together earlier at a nightclub in Bogalusa, La.

— Jan. 14: Michael T. Battle and John S. McGrath, both 18 and of Ocean Springs, died after Battle lost control of his car and it hit a tree off Interstate 10 in Jackson County around 11:45 p.m. Battle was an Ocean Springs High student and McGrath was a recent graduate.

— Jan. 15: Infant Caanaan Sairley, 4 months, died and four people were injured when his mother, Brittany Broome, 18, pulled in front of an 18-wheeler on U.S. 98 near Lucedale in George County at 3:23 p.m. The truck driver’s wife and children were traveling with him.

— Feb. 13: Nicole Olsen, 18, trying to cross U.S. 90, pulled in front of a vehicle in Pascagoula around 7:30 p.m. She was an expectant mother and a Pascagoula High senior. A 15-year-old passenger was injured.

— Feb. 14: James Israel, 14, was joyriding on a four-wheeler on Saracennia Road in Jackson County when he lost control and struck his head.

— Feb. 28: Dane Eubanks, 16, was a passenger in a vehicle in which the driver lost control and the vehicle flipped several times on Old Spanish Trail in Gautier around 2:45 p.m. He and the injured driver, also 16, were returning from a Mardi Gras celebration. Eubanks was a junior at Gautier High.

— April 14: Stepbrothers Donny Sullivan Jr., 20, and Joshua James Premeaux, 17, of Vancleave, were ejected from a Jeep Cherokee and four teenage friends were injured when their vehicle crashed into a pole on Interstate 10 near Interstate 65 in Mobile at 3:30 a.m. None was wearing a seat belt. They were returning from a trip to Panama City, Fla. Premeaux was a junior at Biloxi High. Sullivan played football and baseball in Biloxi and St. Martin.

— April 29: Gabby Henderson, 15, and her best friend, Jasmine Townsend, 16, both of Ocean Springs, died after Townsend pulled in front of another vehicle on U.S. 90 in Gautier around 10:50 p.m. They had just dropped off a friend after a school pageant and were on their way to gas up the car. They were dance-team members and sophomores at Ocean Springs High.

— May 8: Whitlee Lynae Davis, 16, of Wade, was on her way to school as she followed a carload of friends, who authorities said also ran a stop sign at Cedarcrest and Mississippi 614. Davis’ vehicle was struck by a commercial gas truck. She was a junior at East Central High School.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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