2009-03-19 / Front Page

Teens get crash course in driving safety

BY MICHAEL ACKER Staff Writer

NEW BRUNSWICK — Safe-driving advocates recently reminded young drivers of the responsibility they accept when driving on local roads and highways.

More than 130 people from across the state attended the Crash Course conference, held at the Arline and Henry Schwartzman Courtyard at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), New Brunswick.

Pam Fischer, the director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety, delivered the keynote address at the event March 12.

Diana J. Starace said that Middlesex County has one of the highest rates of motor vehicle crashes involving young drivers between the ages of 16 and 20. She said that a New Jersey teen is involved in a car crash every nine minutes, and one dies each week.

"That's horrible," said Starace, the injury prevention coordinator and Safe Kids Middlesex County coordinator with the Level One Trauma Center at RWJUH, which sponsored the program.

Wendy Berk, of the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, located in North Brunswick, was one of the presenters at the conference.

Berk is trained in the National Safety Council's Alive at 25 programs, which the nonprofit organization uses to encourage drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 to take responsibility for their driving behavior, since young drivers are most likely to be involved in a fatal collision.

Car-crash survivor Greg Gecik spoke to the teens at the conference about his experience, which involved another teen driver almost seven years ago. Gecik was the passenger in a car that was driven by a driver, who despite getting a night of sleep, remained legally drunk the next morning when they went on the road and struck a tree on Route 78.

"So it is important for people to realize that the alcohol was still in his system from the night before and, yes, [Greg] did pay the price," Berk said.

The driver was going 126 miles per hour, so Gecik's recovery has been a miracle, Berk said. However, she said that while Gecik's numerous broken bones have healed since the incident, his life would never be the same due to a facial paralysis and traumatic brain injury that caused shortterm memory loss.

The driver in the crash suffered only a chipped tooth and while he could have been sentenced to between 10 and 15 years in prison, Berk said the Gecik's family supported a reduced sentence as long as the driver paid a fine and performed community service.

While alcohol was a contributing circumstance in the car crash involving Gecik, Starace cited a 2007 report from the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety that states that alcohol is not one of the top 15 reasons teens are involved in car crashes.

In the report, driver inattention is ranked as the top contributing circumstance in car crashes involving young drivers, with unsafe speed ranked as the second highest contributing circumstance. In 2007, 17 percent of Middlesex County's 31,779 car crashes involved young drivers.

The presence of fellow teens in the car with a young driver is a common cause of problems on the road, Starace said. The chance of fatality rises 50 percent with each additional teen after the one that is allowed by law in the state's graduated driver's license program for drivers under age 21.

Berk said that in incidents in which young drivers are pressured by a passenger to speed, they are instead encouraged to handle those situations by taking control, rather than being controlled by the situation.

New drivers often do not know how to react to situations they encounter on the road, and if they are speeding or engaging in risky behaviors like road rage or using a cellular phone while driving, the risk to the driver is much greater, Berk said.

"Some of the issues related to teen driving and why there are so many crashes in this age group … a lot of it comes from inexperience," Berk said.

Nationally, an average of 6,000 teens die and another 300,000 are injured as a result of car crashes, and Berk said teens need to know these statistics in order to divorce themselves from feelings of invincibility that often lead them to conclude that this could not happen to them.

"That is a big issue with teenagers; they have a party in their car," Berk said. "There are so many distractions and they're not aware of the road. … Twenty-nine teens die in crashes each day. Kids are surprised to hear that. That equates to a jet liner crashing each week."

For more information, visit http://www.rwjuh.edu/crashcourse09/ or www.ugotbrains.com. A new website aimed at parents is anticipated for June.

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