By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
he call comes in sometime shortly after midnight.
The officer patrolling the area and assigned to investigate knows that there was a high school prom that ended about the time the call came in. Or maybe it was a graduation ceremony earlier in the evening. Perhaps it was one of the many private parties held in the area to celebrate the transition from high school student to young adult.
The call reports a one-vehicle crash with injuries.
It is a time of such promise, of anticipation of what the future will bring. At this point, some students have selected their career paths and are ready to enter the job market; others have chosen their college field of study. There is a general attitude of expectation and wonder among young people ready to make a major life transition. Parents are justifiably proud and eager to celebrate, too.
The call is updated: EMS is on the scene, reporting one fatality.
The officer cringes when he hears that report as he continues his response. He runs through a mental checklist of the tasks he will have to perform once he arrives to determine what happened in the crash and why. He thinks about safely securing and clearing the scene. Now that a fatality has occurred, he considers the department’s protocols and procedures to be followed. He thinks about the notifications that must be made up the chain of command.
There is one notification that he dreads, especially if the deceased is a member of the graduating class. As much as he loves being a police officer, he hates the task of notifying parents of the death of a child. He thinks about the long walk from his cruiser to the front door of the child’s house. The interminable wait after the knock as the parents stir from slumber and make their way to the door. He knows that when the door opens, the parents’ faces and eyes will transition through three distinct phases. First, there will be a look of irritation at being awakened in the middle of the night. That look then gives way to confusion as they see that the person on their stoop is a police officer. The third phase is the most heartbreaking: the parents’ faces and eyes show they realize—before even a word is said—that something is terribly wrong.
The officer hopes he will be able to find a chaplain or grief counselor at this hour to accompany him.
He then thinks proudly about how his department worked proactively to promote safe driving during the prom/graduation season. Officers worked with student groups and met with school staff to educate them about the dangers of the season. Parents that were planning parties were provided with information to raise their awareness of the risks to young drivers.
The department had found the information it needed on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Web site (www.nhtsa.gov). On the main page, there was a “Quick Click” link to teen driving topics, where the department had learned that crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers and that teen drivers have three times as many fatal crashes as other drivers per mile driven.
The department developed a plan that addressed two risk factors that affected young drivers: seat belt use and underage access to alcohol.
Of the nearly 5,000 crash victims aged 16–20 last year, 58 percent were not wearing seat belts, so the department increased its educational outreach about why restraints were required and stepped up its seat belt enforcement work.
The department also worked on two fronts to prevent teen involvement in alcohol-related crashes. With 2006 statistics showing that 64 percent of teenage drivers and motorcycle operators killed in crashes had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or above, a high-visibility enforcement campaign was begun to deter illegal underage purchase and possession and had targeted those who provided alcohol to minors.
Educating parents was the second part of the alcohol campaign, urging those parents who provided alcohol to teens to realize that it was “time to grow up.” As part of the NHTSA’s “Underage Drinking: Adult Consequences” project, irresponsible parents are reminded that providing alcohol to those under the age of 21 is not only wrong but illegal.
Through press releases and community meetings, the department provided additional tips to parents to help keep their young drivers safe. Also found on the NHTSA Web site, these tips, developed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, contain guidance all parents of teen drivers could use:
- Do not rely solely on driver’s education programs to make your child a safe driver. Attitudes and decision-making skills are something more effectively learned from parents.
- Know the law on driver’s license restrictions and strictly enforce those rules.
- Restrict night driving. Risk-taking and distractions are more prevalent at night, and most fatal crashes involving teens take place between 9:00 p.m. and midnight.
- Restrict passengers to reduce distractions for your young driver.
- Practice, practice, practice driving skills with your teen.
- Be a role model.
- Require safety belt use.
- Prohibit drinking.
- Choose vehicles for safety, not image.
The officer advises dispatch he has arrived on the scene. As he steps from his vehicle, he braces himself for the grim reality he is about to face, but he is comfortable in the knowledge that his department did what it could to prevent this crash from taking a young life full of hope and potential.
Will your officers feel the same about your department when they face that next crash? ■