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‘I can’t be dead ... I’m only 17’

Posted: May 27, 2010 5:41 p.m.
Updated: May 28, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Teen drivers can learn valuable safety lessons from their parents, who are their top driving role models. Teen drivers can learn valuable safety lessons from their parents, who are their top driving role models.
Teen drivers can learn valuable safety lessons from their parents, who are their top driving role models.

"Agony claws my mind. I am a statistic. When I first got here I felt very much alone. I was overwhelmed with grief, and I expected to find sympathy. I found no sympathy. I saw only thousands of others whose bodies were as badly mangled as mine. I was given a number and placed in a category. The category was called ‘Traffic Fatalities.'

"The day I died was an ordinary school day. How I wish I had taken the bus. But I was too cool for the bus. I remember how I wheedled the car out from mom. ‘Special favor,' I pleaded - ‘All the kids drive.' When the 2:50 p.m. bell rang, I threw my books in the locker. I ran to the parking lot - excited at the thought of driving a car and being my own boss. Free.

"It doesn't matter how the accident happened. I was goofing off - going too fast. Taking crazy chances. But I was enjoying my freedom and having fun. The last thing I remember was passing an old lady who seemed to be going awfully slow. I heard a deafening crash and felt a terrific jolt. Glass and steel flew everywhere. My whole body seemed to be turning inside out. I heard myself scream.

"Suddenly, I awakened. It was very quiet. A police officer was standing over me. Then I saw a doctor. My body was mangled. I was saturated with blood. Pieces of jagged glass were sticking out all over. Strange that I couldn't feel anything. Hey, don't pull that sheet over my head! I can't be dead! I'm only 17, I've got a date tonight. I'm supposed to grow up and have a wonderful life. I haven't lived yet. I can't be dead!

"Later, I was placed in a drawer. My folks had to identify me. Why did they have to see me like this? I had to look at mom's eyes when she faced the most terrible ordeal of her life. Dad suddenly looked like an old man. He told the man in charge, ‘Yes, he is our son.'

"The funeral was a weird experience. I saw all my relatives and friends walk toward the casket. They passed by, one by one, and looked at me with the saddest eyes I've ever seen. Some of my buddies were crying. A few of the girls touched my hand and sobbed as they walked away. Please - somebody - wake me up! Get me out of here. I can't bear to see mom and dad so broken up. My grandparents are so wracked with grief they can barely walk. My brother and sister are like zombies. They move like robots. In a daze. Everybody. No one can believe this, and I can't believe it either.

"Please, don't bury me. I'm not dead! I have a lot of living to do. I want to laugh and run again. I want to sing and dance. Please don't put me in the ground. I promise if you give me just one more chance, I'll be the most careful driver in the whole world. All I want is one more chance. Please, I'm only 17."
- John L. Berrio.

Berrio wrote this to share the story of what happened to his son's friend. He shared his experience as a letter to Dear Abby (Ann Landers). The piece has traveled the world for many years reminding teens to slow down. Please share it with your teen. They may laugh, scoff and roll their eyes. But let them. This is an important message.

More than 15,000 teen drivers, ages 16 to 19, are killed or injured every year in California. Nationally in 2008, more than 400,000 teens were treated in emergency departments for injuries sustained in motor vehicle crashes. Distracted driving - texting, cell phone use and other activities - is a leading cause of needless fatal and injury collisions.

Take a walk in Santa Clarita's Central Park and visit the Youth Grove memorial. This memorial, home to 73 individual pillars, is dedicated to Santa Clarita Valley youth, ages 24 and younger who have died in traffic-related incidents.

It is a grass-roots effort built with the purpose of remembering these youth and educating the community about safe driving. It also offers a place for reflection. Each pillar bears a plaque with the youth's name and age, as well as a reminder that the young person lost will always be "Forever Young." If you and your teen have never visited the Youth Grove Memorial, it's worth a family field trip and the educational lesson.
According to a study conducted by Liberty Mutual, nearly 60 percent of high school students say parents are the biggest influence on their driving, and 69 percent of middle school students say parents will be the biggest influence when they do drive. When we engage in unsafe driving behaviors, it's no wonder our children inherit our bad habits behind the wheel.

It's critical parents set the example they wish their children follow. Parents should never be afraid to set expectations for their young drivers, discuss expectations frequently - and most importantly - insure they are being met. Parental influence on teen drivers may help explain a clear disconnect between how teens view themselves as drivers and their actual driving habits. Nearly nine out of 10 teens (89 percent) describe themselves as safe drivers. Yet many engage in risky behaviors that often lead to crashes, including speeding, neglecting to use safety belts, and talking on a cell phone. Many teens don't view these behaviors as dangerous, again suggesting that they believe they are safe because their parents drive the same way.

As a parent, it is important that you understand the risk factors teen driving. Don't be afraid to emphasize over and over again the rules of driving. And don't be afraid to set consequences for breaking the rules and to follow through on those consequences. Driving privileges are just that - privileges. Your teen must continue to earn this privilege and understand he or she can lose it at any time. You should make sure they understand in advance that each violation of these rules will result in a specific time period during which these privileges will be suspended.

A few behaviors to enforce:

  • Insist your teen driver wear a seat belt at all times. Emphasize repeatedly that your teen WILL lose driving privileges if they or any of their passengers is seen not wearing a seat belt.
  • If your teen tends to get distracted changing CDs or playing with their iPod, consider not having a sound system in the car.
  • Do not permit your teen to drive other teens in the car. This might be difficult to enforce, but if your teen knows breaking this rule will result in a month's loss of driving privileges, they will think twice about it. Other teens in the car always increases risk, not only to the teens but to your financial future as you will be liable for any injuries to passengers because the driver is a minor under your control.
  • Occasionally ask your teen to drive you someplace. Don't make this a "test" up front, but it certainly should be used as an opportunity to see if your teen is taking risks such as driving too closely, rolling through stop signs, racing yellow lights, or disregarding any signs on the road.
  • If you ever smell alcohol on your teen's breath or suspect drug use and they have been driving, privileges should be suspended immediately.

If you do not take this risk seriously, one day you may have to face other families whose loved ones have been injured by your teen. The potentially devastating emotional and financial impact will follow you and your teen for the rest of your lives.

Teach teens that driving is a privilege and not a right. Once teens understand driving is a responsibility, the lesson goes a long way toward creating good, responsible drivers.

Cary Quashen is a high-risk teen counselor, a certified addiction specialist, the founder and president of ACTION Parent & Teen Support Programs and the ACTION Family Counseling Centers. Quashen may be reached at (661) 713-3006. The ACTION Hotline number is 1-800-FOR-TEEN. ACTION Parent & Teen Support Group meetings meet at Canyon High School, 19300 Nadal St., Canyon Country, Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. in the A Building on the west end of the campus.


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