By Margie Wuebker
Headlines proclaim the tragedies -- teens whose lives ended far too soon as a result of traffic accidents.
Ten teens, ranging in age from 14 to 19, have died from single-vehicle crashes since January in Mercer and Auglaize counties. The latest tragedy occurred Wednesday near New Bremen as two Marion Local juniors were returning from morning classes at Tri Star in St. Marys.
Four of the teens lost their lives on Mercer County roadways. The accidents involved drivers losing control of vehicles that went off area roadways. In two instances, the cars struck telephone poles or trees. Another car ended up in a creek, while a pickup truck struck the ditch and rolled three times before bursting into flames. Alcohol is suspected as a factor in the latter crash, although authorities have yet to receive definitive laboratory results.
Ironically, three of the accidents occurred within three miles or less of the victims' homes.
The other six teens lost their lives on Auglaize County roadways. Two of the crashes resulted in multiple fatalities -- a pair of 18-year-old girls and two boys, ages 16 and 17. The accidents involved drivers losing control of vehicles that slammed into utility poles or trees. Alcohol is suspected in one incident, with speed and wet pavement as contributing factors in the others. Lt. Dan Lay, commander of the Wapakoneta post of the Ohio Highway Patrol, and Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey agree the 10 teen deaths already this year represent a dramatic increase in the number of teenage fatalities.
Stats from both counties show there was only one teenager killed in a traffic accident last year and four in 2002.
"The problem likely comes down to driver inexperience and speed," Grey told The Daily Standard. "Kids get off the road, overcorrect and wind up skidding into something or flipping the vehicle."
Troopers as well as sheriff's deputies often go into area schools to present safe driving programs on such topics as drinking and driving, speed and seatbelt usage.
Having uniformed officers in marked cruisers sit at area schools at dismissal time is a possible option to help slow traffic and cause drivers and passengers to buckle seat belts, the officers said. Lay hopes to meet with area law enforcement officials, including representatives of village police departments, about implementing the plan in Auglaize County. Grey plans to make arrangements for a similar plan in Mercer County.
Passing a driving test and obtaining an operator's license does not necessarily assure teens, or adults for that matter, are safe drivers. However, experience can be a good teacher.
Troopers and deputies can issue warnings or citations to drivers -- adults as well as teens -- for speeding and other unsafe habits that could lead to accidents. Unfortunately, losing control of a vehicle or pulling from a stop sign into the path of oncoming traffic happens in an instant.
"Driving a car is not the time to be doing other things," Lay said. "Driving is the task at hand. A life can be lost in an instant."
People tend to be in a hurry, often overlooking important factors like obeying speed limits, using seat belts and looking both ways before pulling from a stop sign in the process. Both officials recommend that parents check their children's driving habits and practice what to do in the event a vehicle drives off a roadway. All too frequently, the incorrect response of whipping the wheel and braking leads to serious accidents.
Bill Blumhorst, owner of Capabilities Driving School in St. Marys, stresses the need to take one's foot off the accelerator, grip the wheel and slowly ease the vehicle back onto the pavement. He practices the procedure with students on lightly-traveled country roads as part of their required driving time. The certified instructor also stresses the importance of maintaining proper focus on the road. That means not using cell phones unless absolutely necessary or trying to adjust the radio.
"I tell my students a vehicle is a dangerous weapon," he added. "The consequences are staggering. You can kill yourself or worse than that, you can kill somebody else and live with it the rest of your life."