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Continued: Stopping teen deaths on the road

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PRINCETON, MINN.

First, there was JoBeth. Then Tayler, Jon, Victoria, Jordain, Brian and Jonathan.

Sami Wilson, a 17-year-old senior at Princeton High School, has attended seven friends' funerals the past two years. All died in teenage driving crashes.

"You kind of just get used to the feeling of a funeral around here," Wilson said the other day, after vehicles in the school's parking lot dispersed with engines revving and cell phones illegally flipping open.

No state in the country has a higher percentage of teenagers behind the wheel in deadly crashes than Minnesota. The deaths have attracted the attention of some legislators, who want changes in state laws, and from teens who are doing something they seldom do: They're asking for more restrictions on their driving to curb the carnage.

Some young drivers are also wondering whether driver's education has become an outdated system aimed more at getting them to pass license tests than at keeping them alive.

A city of 4,000 people about 50 miles north of the Twin Cities, Princeton has buried seven teens who have died in four crashes since March 1, 2006.

"It's like you just know how to put on your front," Wilson said. "You know how to act. You know how to be supportive. You know how to relate to the people going through it. It's kind of sad. A kid my age shouldn't be feeling that."

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, teens were driving in 18.4 percent of Minnesota's fatal traffic accidents from 2004 to 2006. The national average was 14.3 percent.

A Minnesota teen dies in a traffic crash roughly every five days. Already this month, a 17-year-old died without a seat belt on in a head-on crash in Winona County, while another 17-year-old crossed the center line and collided head-on with a bus in southeastern Morrison County, killing a 53-year-old Princeton driver.

"It's almost like you have to hold your breath and pray for the best for these kids," said Eric Minks, a Princeton police officer who was at the scene of a quadruple fatal in July that killed Wilson's two best friends.

"I don't think it's bad parents, because these kids who died had good parents," Minks said. "Maybe they're not getting it in driver's ed. Or have we come to the point in society where the pendulum has swung so far that we don't want to tell our kids about the bad things and confront them with the blood, gore and mangled bodies I see?"

Legislative inaction

Minnesota doesn't have wide-ranging restrictions for its youngest drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently gave the state and nine other states a marginal grade because they don't limit teenage riders and night driving.

Many states, including Wisconsin, prohibit 16-year-old drivers from carrying more than one passenger or driving after midnight. In the past year, legislatures in Illinois, Ohio and Idaho tightened night driving or passenger laws for teen drivers.

Such restrictions can reduce fatal crashes by up to 20 percent, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.

"In Europe, they wait until 18, but they have better transportation systems," said John Kunz, a longtime driver's ed teacher at Highland Park High School. "Here, if kids don't have their wheels, they can't get around. These are their freedom machines."

Minnesota law bans cell phone use and requires seat belts for passengers driven by someone with a provisional license -- mostly 16- and 17-year-olds who need clean records before getting an unrestricted license at 18.

But other attempts to tighten restrictions have failed. With less funding for buses to after-school activities and parents tired of chauffeuring kids, the outcry for more teen driving restrictions runs into practical problems.

"We're a little heavy-handed when it comes to restrictions we put on kids," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. "Shouldn't parents be able to decide when their children are capable of driving, and regulate when they get the car and when they don't?"

Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, chairs a House public safety committee and said teens' access to after-school activities would be hampered by restrictions on passenger loads.

This year's bills include a proposed ban on text messaging while driving. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is pushing the crackdown after seeing studies showing that about two-thirds of kids have admitted to texting while driving.

"The increasing amount of technology available to teens is a huge issue," Hornstein said, "and it's going to become a bigger issue and we're going to have more deaths and injuries unless we nip it in the bud now."

Donny Harder, 16, knows that's easier said than done. The Southwest High student helped write a bill with Hornstein last year that would have doubled fines for anyone convicted of a moving violation while using a cell phone.

The teenager testified and lobbied -- and watched the bill die.

"I was a little disappointed about how short-sighted some of the representatives and senators seemed to be," Harder said.

Restrictions, restrictions

In Princeton, 20-year-old Shantelle Otto has three words for legislators: "Restrictions, restrictions, restrictions."

She explained: "Right when you get your license, you should have no friends in the car for six months and then only one for the next six months."

Otto's younger brother, Tayler, was in a carload of five on a gravel road, riding in the backseat without a seat belt, when he died two years ago after the 18-year-old driver flipped her car.

Sami Wilson attended Tayler's funeral with her friend Jordain Rust, who had named her new dog "Tater" -- Tayler's nickname. In July, Jordain was in a car that blew through a stop sign and hit a truck, killing her and three other teens.

"I think teenagers really need to wake up and realize it's not just every other kid," Wilson said. "They think: 'Oh, it can't happen to me,' and they don't take into consideration how a vehicle is a weapon."

Recently, Bethany Pearson, 19, brought her PowerPoint slide show to her old driver's ed class, showing her smashed Ford Probe, her cracked skull and the way her swollen face looked in the intensive care unit.

While driving from a movie to a bonfire three years ago, the Wyoming, Minn., teenager lost control on a curve, overcompensated and was T-boned by a pickup truck on Hwy. 61 near Forest Lake. Her 14-year-old sister died.

Pearson spent 70 days in the hospital, underwent extensive surgery and has titanium in her cheek, as well as a nonfunctioning pupil that requires special glasses.

Stronger driver's ed?

Some teens and parents think the answer is to revise driver's education.

"When I showed my mother the driver's ed book, she said it's the same exact thing she had when she was a kid," Otto said. "Why not take kids out on ice rinks to do doughnuts to get the feel of it and see how to correct properly?"

In some places, newer and hard-edged student driving seminars are popping up with more of a survival bent. At Dakota County Technical Institute in Rosemount, for example, teenagers are taken through a course of skids and slaloms, in their own cars, to get a feel for such driving.

But the sessions, sponsored by a nonprofit group called Street Survival, are held only three times a year and limited to about 30 kids.

"Parents wouldn't let their kids swim on beaches closed for shark attacks, but they'll let them go out on Friday night when the odds of getting hurt are much worse," said Mike Pehl, a former insurance crash expert, who opened Teens Inc. Driving School in Shoreview.

Pehl takes students on rural roads and has them drop their right tires off the pavement so they can experience a moment that often leads to a dangerous overcorrection.

If a teenager is out with a dangerous driver, Pehl suggests saying: "I'm going to throw up." He guarantees the driver will stop and the teen can get out and call a parent.

"That's the kind of tangible thing they can learn because saying 'no' doesn't always work," said Jane Phillips of Shoreview.

Phillips said that her 17-year-old daughter, Kelly, always wore a seat belt. But last September, she got in the back seat of a friend's car with no working belt and died in a rollover. The driver, distracted by an iPod and text messaging, also died.

"As a parent, it was never on my radar to ask if they had seat belts," Phillips said. "The fundamentals of driving haven't changed, but the distractions have changed dramatically."

With the second anniversary of Tayler's death coming up in March, Shantelle Otto hopes to speak at Princeton High School this spring.

"They think they're invincible and nothing can happen to them," she said. "Like they're untouchable. Well, I not only lost my only brother, I lost my best friend."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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