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Lack of Seat Belt Use Still High for Teen Drivers


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A tree, fresh with new spring growth, displays the scars from a recent automobile accident that claimed the lives of two teenagers in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina during the early morning of March 28th. While hundreds of teenagers and their parents flooded the gymnasium of Hilton Head High School, to mourn the loss of their classmates, Cory Rocha and Cesar Herrara, a memorial continued to grow at the base of the marred tree. Late into the evening hours, bouquets of bright flowers, burning candles, and simple handwritten notes lay protected beneath the tree’s sprawling branches as a spring rain fell in the Hilton Head Island area, a tight-knit community of about 38,000.

Rocha, 17, and Herrara, 18, were traveling to school with their friends and classmates, Ramon Morales, 17, and Michelle Alvares, 16. Morales, the driver of the 2011 Ford Focus, struck a culvert and hit a tree after being airborne. Rocha and Herrara were ejected from the vehicle at the time of the accident and were pronounced dead at the scene. Morales and Alvares were taken to the hospital with serious injuries.

Remembering the Victims

“Cory was a nice kid,” said Jamie Powell, a friend who witnessed the accident aftermath, “He was always hanging out with someone. It’s a shock that there are more friends of mine that I won’t be able to see anymore.”

Rocha and Herrara, both high school seniors, are remembered fondly by friends, school staff, and classmates. The young men played soccer and excelled at the sport; Herrera earned a scholarship and planned to move on to play soccer at the collegiate level.

Like many car accidents, that tragically take the lives of young people every year, many friends, families, and even residents of Hilton Head who never knew the young men, are left with an empty space in their hearts, anger, and the simple question, “Why?” Unfortunately, like many fatal accidents, the fatalities and severe injuries may have been prevented if all passengers, including the driver, had been wearing seat belts; no one in the vehicle was wearing a safety belt at the time of the crash.

The Disturbing Trend: Teens are not “Buckling Up”

In the early 1980’s and well into the 90’s, Vince and Larry, the iconic Crash Test Dummies, helped change drivers’ attitudes towards seat belts. The not-so-bright duo participated in a plethora of poor driving choices, never wearing a safety belt, and always showing the dark reality of an automobile accident. In the late 1980’s, the humorous PSA helped pass seat belt laws and the percentage of drivers, who committed to buckling up, rose to 50%.

Fast forward 20 years and we still witness the prevalent issue on our roadways that teens are not buckling up. Teen drivers, fresh out of driving school with a new license in their wallets, are the most vulnerable of drivers. While some young drivers are confident and excited, others may be overly cautious and nervous while behind the wheel. Regardless of their attitudes towards driving, teens are inexperienced. Not surprisingly, motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death among teens in the U.S. and numerous factors may be responsible for the fatal accident. Fatal accidents may occur due to distractions, reckless driving, substance abuse, and the lack of seat belt use. If all drivers and passengers made the choice to wear a safety belt, thousands of lives could be saved each year.

The Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that teens have the lowest seat belt use rates of any age group with only 65% of teens consistently wearing their safety belt as both a driver and passenger. Additionally, six out of 10 drivers between the ages of 16 and 20, who were killed in crashes, were unrestrained. Perhaps the most startling statistic reports that almost two out of three teenagers killed as occupants of motor vehicles are unrestrained.

Banding Together: Parental and Public Involvement

In our evolved age of technology, the Public Service Announcements starring Vince and Larry might be viewed as “vintage” if not a little corny, but how are teens getting the message that buckling up is vital?

While it’s tempting to leave the “buckle your seat belt” discussion to local law enforcement or driving instructors, teens need to hear it first hand from their parents or other adults who care and lead by example.

Parents can’t expect their teen to use a seat belt on a regular basis if they fail to wear one themselves. Adult drivers, traveling with teens and young children, should buckle up their safety belts before keys enter the ignition. Just because your teen may be a year or two away from moving out of the house and off to college, as a parent or guardian, you have the right to reinforce vehicle safety laws and establish driving expectations. It may raise some voices in your household, but it shows that you care about the well-being of your adolescent driver.

“It’s important that parents talk to their teen drivers and establish rules for the road,” says Corey Roberts, Montgomery County Emergency Services director. “Just because a teen has their license does not mean they are experienced, safe drivers. Parents must stay involved.”

In addition to parental involvement, teens can be impacted by their peers and projects at school or even online websites devoted to teen driver safety. Research shows that driving programs that combine education, peer-to-peer strategies, enforcement, and parental monitoring may increase teen seat belt use. Many high school students, across the U.S., pledge to become one more safer driver on the road, making good choices and always buckling up.

Pledging for Safety

For many young drivers, the inspiration and motivation to become a safer driver do not happen until tragedy strikes.

With the end of the school year just moments away, a time when high school students are known to have a case of “Spring Fever”, the students of Hilton Head High gathered solemnly to remember their beloved classmates on the Monday following the accident. Many students signed a banner, in the corridor of the school, pledging to be a safer driver and always use seat belts. One of the students, Lauren White, signed the banner and expressed the importance of safety belts.

“ The seat belt is so important…I don’t know what the outcome (of the crash) would have been, but I don’t think it would have been as bad (if seat belts had been used).”

Green ribbons, in a hue similar to new spring grass, donned students’ hooded sweatshirts and light-weight jackets. As students huddled together in a moment of silence, wiping tears from their eyes, they wear the ribbons to honor Rocha and Herrera and as a promise to be safer drivers; a vow to buckle up. A small gesture, a powerful message: Too late to save a life, but never too late to change.