There's nothing you can tell Erin Breen about teens and their reckless driving habits that will surprise her. She runs grant-funded outreach programs to address traffic safety issues and analyzes data for state policymakers through UNLV's Transportation Research Center. Much of her work focuses on teenagers -- those risk-taking newbie drivers too often involved in crashes. Last summer, the personal tragedies behind the statistics were brought home to her in a way she never imagined.
June 29: A neighbor banged on our door that morning. The minute I realized who my husband was talking to, I knew it was about the kids. Our daughter, Hayley, (who was 18) was with their daughter in Southern California. There had been a car crash.
What Happened: They broke every rule we ever talked to them about -- like getting sleep before you drive. Hayley was asleep in the backseat when the car flew off the freeway at about 70 miles per hour. I thank God a thousand times a day the driver (another teenager) somehow didn't roll the car. Hayley had a shattered jaw, two broken bones in her foot, and a messed up back, but she's alive.
When I Saw Her: At the hospital in California, she was heavily sedated. The first thing she said was, "Mom, I was trying to get comfortable in the backseat to sleep and I took my seatbelt off." I was just so glad she was alive and I told her so. I figured we could talk about the seatbelt later, and, believe me, we did.
Cautionary Tale: (For the past few years Breen has arranged speaking events with Sean Larimer. Now a college student, Larimer was 16 when he drank at a party and then got behind the wheel. He lost control of the car and slammed into a block wall, killing three of his best friends.) Sean is a terrific young man who made terrible mistakes that will be with him the rest of his life. But good has come out of that tragedy. He definitely has saved lives through his speaking to teenagers. I could talk until I was blue in the face and not have nearly the same impact. They relate to Sean.
No Goody Two-Shoes: I never made any bones about the fact that I was that kid. I was a good partyer in my Bishop Gorman days. I drank my share of Strawberry Hill. People say to me, "Do you feel hypocritical?" I'm smarter than I was then. God willing, we'll get these teenagers to the point where they will be smarter as adults, too.
A Parent's Role: What was unusual in Sean's case is that he has an incredible mother who is a complete rock. Susan did something that not a lot of parents do. She said to him, "You did this and you are going to take responsibility." And he never flinched about doing that.
Follow Up: If your child is involved in something terrible, something life-altering, pay attention. You may not think that your child needs professional help, but do yourself a big, huge favor and have your child go and talk with a counselor. These things can be too hard for a child to handle alone.
Personal Responsibility: Nevada law says a driver is responsible for making all minor passengers wear seatbelts. Personally, I don't think all responsibility should rest with the driver. My contention is: If you are old enough to be out on a Friday night at 11:30 in a car full of your friends, you are old enough to take the responsibility to put your own seatbelt on.
Past Successes: (Breen and Susan Larimer were among those who lobbied for years for Nevada's graduated driving law, which places a number of restrictions on new teen drivers. One key element prohibits teen drivers from having anyone other than family members in the car for the first six months they have their licenses.) Nevada's graduated driving law immediately began saving lives. The number of driving deaths among 15- and 16-year-olds in Nevada dropped from 21 one year to five the next year after the change.
Current Challenges: We are trying to get a law passed that would let law enforcement officers stop and ticket people for not wearing seatbelts. Right now they can ticket people for that only if they already are stopping the car for another violation.
A Little Irony: They can stop you if your taillight is out. They can stop you if you have an air freshener hanging from your rearview mirror. Those things are against the law. Ever hear of anybody dying from those things?
Lobbying Takes Tenacity: Passing laws that save lives is hard because of the idea some people have that placing limits on personal choices is inherently a bad thing. Libertarians don't like me.
Bottom Line: I'm really not trying to step on your Constitutional rights. I'm just trying to make sure you get home at night to your family. And if I do step on your rights in the process, I really don't apologize for it at all.