Cluster of fatal teen car crashes belies US trend

Cluster of fatal teen car crashes belies US trend
Associated Press

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) - Derrek Lee Hager had just dropped off his girlfriend in the Texas Panhandle and was headed with four other friends to a nearby town to continue enjoying their spring break.

But the teens never made it, perishing in a fiery wreck near Dumas after the driver ran a stop sign and collided with a tanker loaded with fuel.

The deaths of the five Texas teens came the same day as an accident in Ohio that killed six and a day before a crash in Illinois killed four. Three teenagers died Friday in Indiana when police said the drivers of two pickups ran a four-way stop and collided.

The deadly accidents serve as horrific reminders of the perils of teen driving but contrast statistics indicating that fatal crashes among teen drivers have declined during the past decade, according to a report released last month by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. The report also indicates that deaths of younger teen drivers sharply increased during the first six months of last year, reversing a 10-year trend.

There were 435 16-year-old drivers killed in 2000, according to the report, but by 2011 that had dropped to 173. During the same time period, deaths among 17-year-old drivers dropped from 564 to 250.

But deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers in traffic accidents during the first six months of 2012 rose a combined 19 percent during the same period of the previous year, from 202 to 240 deaths. The report, which does not include passenger deaths, is based on preliminary state data that sometime changes.

Despite the recent increase, overall teen driving deaths are significantly lower than they were a decade ago, when teen drivers traveled with fewer state-imposed restrictions, including limits on driving with teen passengers and driving at night.

Deaths of young passengers when the driver was between the ages of 15 and 20 have dropped significantly since 1982, when 1,898 riders within the same age range died, according to the report. In 2011, the year for which most recent data are available, the number of deaths of passengers between 15 and 20 years old dropped to 777, the report showed.

Meanwhile, fewer American teens are getting driver's licenses, part of a demographic segment that also includes those in their 20s and 30s, transportation researchers have found. Among those groups, the number of people with driver's licenses has dropped significantly during the past three decades in the United States and in some other wealthy nations with a high proportion of Internet users.

Researchers surmise that virtual contact through Internet and other electronic means is reducing the need for face-to-face visits among young people, researchers say.

Early Tuesday, the bodies of four high school students from Wilmington, Ill., aged 15 to 17, were recovered from a nearby creek.

Will County Sheriff's Department spokesman Ken Kaupas said it appeared the driver hit a patch of water or ice and lost control. The car tore through a guard rail on the bridge and plunged into the water.

Wilmington Mayor Marty Orr said at a news conference that the city was still coming to grips with the magnitude of the tragedy.

"This really kind of increases it tenfold but we'll get through it," he said.

In Texas, Hager's father said Tuesday that both vehicles involved in the crash were engulfed by flames, prompting investigators to turn to DNA to positively identify the teenagers in the car. The 18-wheeler's driver, Ezequiel Garcia, remained in critical condition with burns over 65 percent of his body.

Terrance Hager said, despite shock and disbelief, he's found one comfort in the loss of his 17-year-old son.

"I know he's with his mom," he said, referring to his wife's death eight years ago. She was killed in a traffic accident involving an 18-wheeler right outside the family's home in Stratford, 30 minutes north of Dumas near the Oklahoma border.

The teens' deaths have affected families throughout the Texas Panhandle, a local official said Tuesday.

"It's had a big effect on the whole area, and I think it always seems more tragic when you have a loss of life when people are so young," said Dr. David Bonner, the mayor pro tem of Dumas.

Two of the teens were sisters from Dumas, a ranching and farming town of about 15,000. The others were from a nearby small town.

The collision occurred Sunday, about 45 miles north of Amarillo. Preliminary reports indicate that alcohol was not a factor and an investigation is ongoing, authorities said.

Killed were Jacob Paul Stipe, 16, of Sunray, Hager and Christopher Lee Moore, both 17 and from Sunray, and October Dawn Roys, 17, and her younger sister, Elizabeth Kay Roys, 15.

According to a report on the Ohio crash released Tuesday, the 19-year-old driver of an allegedly stolen SUV that plunged into water and killed six of the eight people inside did not have a current driver's license. Two teens who survived the crash told police the woman was speeding and driving recklessly before Sunday's accident.

The Indiana wreck happened after six students off from school to attend a Future Farmers of America event at a rural church left the event. Three died at the scene and three others were injured. Police believe both drivers ran a four-way stop, with a Dodge truck hitting a smaller Ford F-250 broadside.


Associated Press writers Caryn Rousseau in Chicago and Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.