Youth car crashes: preventable tragedies
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Story and photos by Rob Obara

Photo Gallery: Youth car crashes

Saanich, British Columbia – Imagine starting a car as a driver, and turning it off as a killer – or simply turning off your own life.

2,900 Canadians die every year in car collisions, according to Transport Canada. This averages out to about one death on our roads every three hours – and at 29% of all fatalities, car crashes are the number one killer of Canadian youth (age 15 to 19), followed distantly by suicide (source: CARS BC).

After hearing of countless deaths on our roadways, I decided it was time to actively protest the needless carnage. With a teacher sponsor at my high school, we planned and created a mock car crash. Collecting the car from an auto-wrecker had an impact in itself. Coming across many horribly destroyed vehicles, I noticed one still had a novice ‘N’ still on the back.

We assembled photographers, drama-student actors, reporters, police, paramedics, and fire crews complete with the daunting Jaws of Life. The crash was staged in front of my school during lunch hour. For a moment, my peers had the same gut wrenching feeling that far too many families and friends have shared: revolting shock from an enormous loss that could have easily been prevented.

Youth car crashes: preventable tragedies
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I’d like to think that our efforts brought the effects of dangerous or impaired driving into my peers’ minds. I’d like to hope that this project made the difference in even just one student deciding not to drive drunk. Well, luckily none of my peers from high school have been in a fatal crash since, and now as a university student, I am glad to hear that drinking and driving is socially unacceptable among the peers I talk to – so why do people continue to die needlessly on our roads?

I recently volunteered to observe a local police drinking and driving CounterAttack road check. That evening, there were numerous law infringements, many involving impairment – in fact, the second vehicle to approach the road check had to be towed away because the driver was too drunk to drive. A national survey of over 1,200 drivers by the Road Safety Monitor found that eighteen percent of Canadians drive promptly after drinking alcohol. Furthermore, Transport Canada states that over 4.2 million trips are made per year where the driver felt they were over the legal limit. The dangers on our roads are ever present.

Impairment, according to Transport Canada, is the cause for over a third of driver fatalities, with extreme effects on youth. A blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.080-0.099 makes the death of a 35-year old four times more likely than when sober – for a 19-year old, death is 44 times more likely.

Youth car crashes: preventable tragedies
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Over 70,000 Canadians are impacted by impaired driving yearly, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Two in five teens who are killed on the road have been drinking. Meanwhile, young drivers aged 16-24 already have the highest rates of death per kilometre driven among all drivers under 75. Statistically, youth crashes occur more often in the summer, on the weekend, and at night. Sergeant Ross Elliott with the Saanich Police suggests that parents place limits for new drivers especially during high risk times. He reminds parents that they have the right to revoke their child’s driver’s licence while they are still a minor. Furthermore, he stresses the importance of driving free of distractions (namely cell phones), and that if a driving teenager is late for something, that parents drive them to their destination – as the child is unlikely to be late again any time soon.

Being familiar with the risks of impaired/dangerous driving, I made a deal with my parents when I was young. I told them that some day I may really need their help – and we agreed that if I called them late at night for a ride, no questions would be asked. Ever since I got my driver’s licence, that offer has in turn stood for my parents – and everyone else I know too.

Because one driver’s actions can affect many other people, passengers should not be passive; in 2003 thirty-two percent of all vehicular fatalities were passengers. Although male teens are 87% and 89% more likely to account for impaired driving deaths and injuries, respectively, MADD states that females are more likely to be killed or injured as passengers. Overall, 190 Canadians are seriously injured on our roads per day (Source: MADD). This includes everyone from pedestrians to cyclists (though wild animals are also involved in collisions), so as such, everyone needs to work together to arrive at our destinations alive.

Youth car crashes: preventable tragedies
Click image to enlarge

At the age of nineteen, Heather Charlton was driving home from a club with her best friend, Maria. Little did she know she would end up in a padded holding cell – the police uncertain about the harm she might cause herself. Both Heather and her friend were intoxicated and listening to loud music, when Heather lost control at 150 km/h, hitting a street pole on the passenger side before flipping six times. Maria died, her body crushed. Heather was charged with one count of criminal negligence causing death, and two counts of bodily harm. Heather stresses that this was not an accident, and now almost a decade later, she is still tormented by how this was completely preventable.

It is important to keep in mind that alcohol is not the only medium for impairing drivers. The use of cannabis, among other drugs, is becoming more widespread. Within cannabis, THC is the main psychoactive compound found – which according to the Pot and Driving Campaign, alters perception, mood, consciousness, and behaviour. Canadians aged 18 to 25 have some of the highest use of cannabis in the world. Some notable numbers found on the MADD website indicate while 49% and 63% of Atlantic students in grade 10 and 12 have used cannabis and alcohol, respectively, 15.1% and 11.7% reported driving under the influence of cannabis and alcohol respectively.

It is currently a criminal offence to drive while impaired, whether by alcohol or other drugs. Still, proposals have been made to amend the Impaired Driving section of the Criminal Code of Canada to allow police departments to submit suspected drugged drivers to sobriety tests. Upon failing such a test, the driver may be submitted to testing by a Drug Recognition Expert. Only after the confirmation of drugs in bodily fluids could charges be laid – although refusal to complete the test would result in a criminal charge, as with drivers suspected of being impaired by alcohol. (Source: Pot and Driving Campaign)

Youth car crashes: preventable tragedies
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Dangerous driving, such as street racing, is just as deadly as impaired driving. Navjot Gill was in a vehicle following friends in another – a speeding van which was totalled after not making a corner. Broken necks, broken backs, brain and kidney damage resulted, but lives were not lost. John Westhaver was not as lucky when the speeding vehicle he was in crashed. Though piloted by a designated driver, John was the only one to walk away from the impact which killed his three teenage friends; “the last things we were thinking of were to slow down, to not drink beer while in the car, to wear our seat belts, or to turn the music down� If I would of even thought of suggesting any of that, I think they would of stopped the car and threw me out. Hmm�now that I think about it maybe I should of spoken up. If anything I wouldn’t have ended up with these scars covering 75% of my body and I would have had my life back.” John affirms that you, as a passenger, have a huge impact on how a driver acts. When it comes to passive passengers, I am reminded of a quote by Hannah Arendt, who said “no one has the right to obey”.

Kevin Brooks was paralyzed in a crash when he was 20 years old
Kevin Brooks was paralyzed in a crash when he was 20 years old. Click image to enlarge

Colleen Woodger, with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, reminds us that the easiest thing we can all do to save our lives is simply always wear a seatbelt: “30% of deaths are from people who did not have their belt on.” Kevin Brooks is convinced that his seatbelt is what saved him when, at twenty years of age, he crashed his Chevy Cavalier while intoxicated and driving aggressively. His seatbelt held him in as his car rolled, and then once stopped, held him upside down in his inverted car – which prevented him from drowning in the blood and fluid building up in his collapsed lung. Kevin was paralyzed from the crash, but he escaped with his life unlike his passenger, and friend, Brendan. Even though Kevin does not remember the crash, he has since been heavily involved in traffic safety presentations for youth. Some local youth with driving infractions were given the option of attending this impactful presentation or paying the penalties.

True traffic safety will ultimately rely on all drivers making the right choices. Education is the best way to inform the public about the real risks in driving – but all too often the media project characters who steal cars and cause crashes with no penalty.

Author Obara pilots his Nissan Skyline through an autocross course
Author Obara pilots his Nissan Skyline through an autocross course. Click image to enlarge

Inspector Bob Downie with the Saanich Police calls this “negative messaging”, and he extends this from movies and video games to parents setting examples with poor driving habits. On behalf of the police, he also communicates a message to parents: “talk to your kids, so we don’t have to talk to you.”

Just as with the movies, it is all too common that we hear about a traffic incident but fail to follow up with what goes on far beyond the initial carnage. But every car crash incident with death or injury has an immense impact on the families and friends of those involved. Even if nobody is physically hurt, involved parties are often affected financially, mentally, and legally.

I’m not going to lie. I enjoy driving and the freedom associated with it. Speed can be thrilling, but not on public roads. It’s only on the race-track, where I exercise the narrow limits of my vehicle and my driving. There are numerous autocross groups across Canada where you young drivers can get involved – safely. These events allow helmeted drivers to get fully acquainted with how their vehicle handles, and at the same time realize just how dangerous unsafe driving can be.

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