LAWS, campaigns aim to curb the No. 1 killer of driving-age teens

Saturday, May 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT ATKINSON, Wis. (AP) _ Evidence of the crash would be easy to miss at this intersection on a lonely stretch of two-lane highway, tucked amid the rolling green hills and dairy farms of southern Wisconsin.

Those who speed by _ farmers, office workers, truck drivers _ might not notice the skid marks that trail into muddy tire tracks down an embankment and into a barren corn field.

They might also miss the red spray paint used to scrawl a heart and a few words on the pavement of state Highway 18: ``Danny, Court, Bridge, Ellen _ We Love You.'' And the handmade crosses that mark this and other roadsides across the country where teens have died.

These are reminders that while school violence has grabbed the nation's attention, automobile crashes are the No. 1 killer of Americans ages 15 to 20, and have been for decades.

In this case, it was Daniel Kudlata, Courtney Ott, Bridget Polk and Ellen McGlynn _ four teens from Fort Atkinson, who died April 20 on their way home from a dinner where they'd met their state's governor, Scott McCallum.

Officials say Kudlata, who was driving, apparently ran through a stop sign and into the path of a big rig. The truck broadsided their 1989 Honda Civic, dragging it into the field.

Three of the four teens were thrown from the car in what has become a painfully familiar scenario in Wisconsin. Last spring, a dozen teen-agers died in three separate crashes in the state.

The trend is much the same nationally. Though deaths and injuries have dropped in the last decade _ and even dipped in the springtime due to frequent safe-driving campaigns aimed at prom and graduation time _ thousands of driving-age teens still die in crashes each year.

In 1999, about 520,000 were injured and more than 4,900 died, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Alcohol was a factor in more than a third of the deaths.

In the Fort Atkinson case, however, sheriff's officials say alcohol and even speeding _ another common factor in crashes _ played no role. For whatever reason _ inexperience, distractions, perhaps fog _ Kudlata apparently didn't see the stop sign.

``It could've happened to anybody,'' Brad Butler, a 16-year-old who was good friends with Polk, says quietly as he pauses outside Fort Atkinson High School, where the American flag remained at half-staff nearly three weeks after the crash. ``It's hard to accept.''

Safety experts say the major factors that contribute to teen-age road deaths are easy to tally. Besides alcohol, drugs and speeding, they include such distractions as music, passengers and cell phones.

Add a general lack of driving experience to the mix and the risk of a crash becomes even greater, says Cheryl Neverman, NHTSA's youth program coordinator.

``We pay all this attention to school shootings,'' she says. ``And yet young people die in their cars every day, every hour.''

Some states are trying to address the problem.

More than half have driving curfews for teens. And 14 of them, from California to Indiana and New Jersey, have passenger limits for young drivers.

Wisconsin began restricting passengers _ no more than one, unless they are family members _ for new drivers last July. (The law didn't apply to Kudlata, who was 17 and got his license before the law was enacted).

Similar passenger restrictions go into effect in Tennessee, Utah and Virginia on July 1.

Deadly crashes also have prompted some city governments and individuals to take matters into their own hands.

After five teens died and several others were critically injured in a February 1996 crash in Boca Raton, Fla., emergency room nurse Mary Russell applied for grant money to start one of the country's first ``Safe Communities'' crash-prevention projects at Florida Atlantic University.

Among other things, the money funds driving centers where teens can get behind-the-wheel training, which is not required in Florida.

A string of crashes prompted young people in Olney, Md., to organize pool parties and a ``battle of the bands'' to entice their peers to stay in town, instead of driving to nearby Washington in search of fun.

In Fort Atkinson, county officials might place ``rumble strips'' on some roadways to help alert drivers to upcoming stop signs.

Neverman and others also are asking teens _ particularly black and Hispanic youths, who make up a disproportionate number of the deaths _ for help.

In July, hundreds of teens will gather in Los Angeles to help federal officials develop safe driving campaigns _ like an in-your-face bilingual TV ad campaign young Californians already helped state police design.

Some teens also are changing their personal driving habits. That includes Rebecca Willis, a 17-year-old from Decatur, Ga., who lost two friends in separate crashes last year.

``Every once in a while, I might go a little too fast,'' Willis says. ``But when I have people in the car, I really think twice. I think about how I felt when those two great guys died.''

The thought is much the same in Fort Atkinson, where many are still mourning the loss of the four students.

Friends say these were good people and class leaders _ three of them members of the school's Young Republicans group who had posed for photos with the governor just hours before the crash.

``At least she had that,'' George Polk, Bridget's father, says of his daughter's chance to meet McCallum. ``I'm sure it was one of the best days of her life.''