Teens Will Speed. Let’s Watch Them Do It (Washington Post)

The Washington Post

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I met Danny Sivert seven years ago. I was with him in June 2002 after his wife, Bette, was killed in a traffic accident, leaving him to raise their three young children alone.

On Nov. 19 Danny was driving home when two young men lost control of their pickup on Maryland Route 80, slid across the center line and struck Danny’s pickup head-on. A helicopter airlifted Danny to the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, but he died later that evening.

We are in an epidemic of death and injury caused by reckless driving. That’s not just my assessment. “Epidemic” is the word Stephen Bender, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus in the graduate school of public health at San Diego State University, uses to describe the surging numbers of injuries and deaths nationwide caused by young men driving recklessly.

Robyn Solomon, president of the Winston Churchill High School Parent Teacher Student Association, used the same word after a 16-year-old boy from that school died in a Nov. 13 car accident. “Parents need to be talking to their kids and explaining to them the risk,” Solomon said.

Area police agree. Montgomery County police are targeting teenagers with an education campaign. But we can’t stop the epidemic of death and injury caused by reckless driving just by telling teenagers about the risks.

I’ve worked with teenagers who abuse drugs. In the 1980s, we believed that the best way to discourage illegal drug use was to warn teenagers about the risks, but research in the ensuing two decades uncovered dramatic gender differences in outcomes from that approach. Most girls responded to the famous, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs” commercial. But not boys — especially the sensation-seeking, risk-taking ones who are most likely to use illegal drugs.

In 1997 the federal government launched a nationwide advertising program designed to decrease teenage drug use. Five years later, it sheepishly announced that the $900 million campaign had “flopped”[op-ed, May 21, 2002]. Teenagers who saw the government commercials were more likely to use drugs than teenagers who had never seen them. I suspect that was especially true for teenage boys. So more education may not be the answer for the problem of reckless driving either.

Teenage boys who drive down public roads at 90 mph know they are doing something dangerous. They’re doing it, in part, because of the danger. Telling them that it’s dangerous isn’t likely to get them to stop. It might even spur them on. So if more education isn’t the answer, what is?

Bender, the San Diego State professor who called reckless driving an epidemic, has taken a pioneering approach to the problem. In 2002 there were 16 deaths and 31 serious injuries attributed to reckless driving and street racing in San Diego. With funding from the California Office of Traffic Safety, Bender began a program he calls RaceLegal. On Friday evenings, the city’s young people — mostly teenage boys and young men — gather at a four-lane, one-eighth-mile-long drag strip in a corner of a San Diego stadium. On a typical Friday, about 300 would-be racers appear. Their cars are checked for safety features, and all drivers must wear helmets. The races, mostly time trials, often go past midnight.

In 2003, the first year that the RaceLegal program was in action, the number of fatalities in San Diego fell to four. So far this year San Diego has had no deaths attributed to reckless driving or street racing.

Bender’s idea is catching on across the country. In Noble, Okla., drivers can pay $15 to race on Friday evenings at the Thunder Valley Raceway Park. “Beat the Heat” events on the second Friday of every month match high school kids racing their own cars against Noble’s police officers driving police cruisers. Similar programs have begun in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Muncie, Ind.

One thing’s for sure: What we’re doing right now isn’t working in Montgomery County or in the greater Washington area. “Most public policies [including high school education programs] have had little impact on the problem” of reckless driving, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety [Metro, Oct. 4].

So maybe we should try Bender’s idea here. Plenty of space is available at RFK Stadium. Or maybe a drag strip could be built into Washington’s new baseball stadium, if and when it is built.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of supervised racing. Allowing teenagers with no special training to race at speeds of more than 100 mph obviously involves some risk. However, At RaceLegal venues, no kid crosses a double yellow line and collides head-on with a vehicle driven by a single father trying to raise three motherless children.

I’m all for stricter enforcement of laws against reckless driving. But as Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said after another teenager died in a motor vehicle accident, “The answer is not more cops. We can only do so much” [Metro, Nov. 16].

A college fund has been established for the children of Danny and Bette Sivert, and my wife and I will contribute to it. But I think we also should look for ways to stop the epidemic of death and injury caused by reckless driving.

Bender’s idea deserves a chance.

(Read this article on the Washington Post website)