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Driving has become more treacherous than ever for teens

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The recent loss of three young lives in an accident on Salmon Falls Road reminds us of a risk teenage drivers face when they get behind the wheel. And with the winter season in full force, driving is that much more precarious for young motorists. When inexperienced drivers combine with winding rural roads and wet (or in the case of last week, icy) conditions, it’s a dangerous mix. Add racing or “drifting” into the fray and it can be downright deadly. Although it is still under investigation, California Highway Patrol officers believe speeding was a factor in the crash that claimed the lives of passengers Nan Hee Pak, 16, of Rocklin and Alexander Weast, 20, of Citrus Heights, and Elijah “E.J.” Shaw, 18, of Folsom. After midnight on Sunday, Nov. 29, Pak, Weast and Shaw were riding in a 2006 Subaru Impreza driven by 20-year-old Mark Barrera when he reportedly lost control and hit an oak tree off Salmon Falls Road in Pilot Hill. The vehicle was “completely destroyed,” according to an investigating officer. Officers confirmed that two cars were at the scene of the accident, but are still investigating whether racing was a factor. Charges have not been filed against the driver. Some witnesses have suggested that Barrera swerved to avoid an “animal.” Others have said the teens were out drifting, which means skidding sideways with all four tires. Investigators will have to sort it out. But they already report that speed contributed to this horrible tragedy. The community mourns alongside those who loved these three young people. This accident and countless others remind us that young drivers are most at-risk for deadly crashes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2008, 3,500 teens ages 15-19 were killed and 350,000 were injured. As parents, we pay for six hours of behind-the-wheel training, teach our teen a few things ourselves and then hand them the keys. We may throw in a token “drive safe” admonition every now and then. But that is not enough. The instruction they receive is no guarantee our teens won’t make a serious mistake while driving, especially when they may be new to winter driving conditions. “Younger kids’ reflexes are a lot quicker, but they don’t have the experience,” said David Montijo, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol’s Newcastle office. “Especially now, new drivers are now driving in bad weather — rain, snow, ice — and they’ve never been in that situation. It’s brand new to them.” In Smart Start driving classes sponsored by the CHP, Montijo recommends parents take their new drivers out in adverse conditions to help them gain experience on what to do in fog, rain and ice. But even everyday driving is dangerous for a teen. Distractions from iPods, talking or texting on the cell phone (even though it’s illegal) and peer pressure to race all face teen drivers, Montijo said. California law prohibits drivers under age 18 from transporting anyone under age 20 unless accompanied by a parent during the first year of driving. This and other provisional license restrictions have been “huge” in terms of curbing teen accidents, Montijo said. But parents can’t only worry about what their teen will do behind the wheel — they also need to know whom their children are riding with. Cell phones allow most of us to contact our children wherever they may be, but they may provide a false sense of security. Programs like Every 15 Minutes and the Right Turn program, which educate our teens on unsafe driving behaviors in their peers, are needed. Teens need the tools to recognize and remove themselves from those situations. Teens need to be made aware of their shortcomings on the road, especially in the Sierra foothills and especially during the winter. Parents need to continually remind their teenage children about safe driving practices and set rules for when they can drive and who they can drive with. The teenagers of today are our leaders of tomorrow. But they have to live to see tomorrow. It can be deadly on foothill roadways. We all need to help young people realize the potential consequences of unsafe driving before another teenager’s funeral is scheduled.