Officials: Immaturity, electronic devices play role in accidents
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
July 13, 2012 09:44 pm

 

Katy Wiley doesn’t really remember the crash that took she, her fiance and their two children over the north bank of the Chetco River June 15.

“I didn’t have time to think,” she said. “I didn’t even know the air bag went off.”

Her only concern was the condition of the two girls – both under the age of 3 – in the back seat.

 

“That was the only thing I thought about,” Wiley said. The girls were fine. 

Sheriff’s officers, who were responding to another car wreck on the same road, indicated in their report that the car was 20 to 25 feet over the embankment with its underside leaning up against a couple of trees that were keeping the car from falling into a deep pool of water in the river.

“I also observed four skid marks coming across both lanes of traffic, indicating that the vehicle had been sideways at a bit of an angle as it left the paved road,” the report reads. “I could also see where the vehicle had left the roadway on the opposite side.”

The driver, the report reads, “appears to have been traveling at a high rate of speed downriver ... when he went off the roadway to his right and then over-corrected.”

He skidded sideways across both lanes until the car went off the road, hit a speed sign and went over the embankment.

The car then struck a relatively large tree, which turned the vehicle parallel with the river, and it continued until coming to rest against two smaller trees above the water, the report reads.

The whole incident probably took less than 10 seconds. Her Acura – purchased a couple of months earlier – was totalled.

“It all happened so quick,” Wiley said. “So fast.”

 A common refrain.

Accident statistics are all over the board, depending on who’s quoting them, the state in which they occurred and the year from which they are culled.

In 2008, there were 43 driving fatalities among people 16 to 20 in the state of Oregon. Sixty-three percent of passenger deaths occurred in vehicles driven by a teen, compared to 19 percent if the data includes drivers of all ages.

The driver of Wiley’s car was 26 years old.

Locally, most wrecks occur along the North and South banks of the Chetco River, particularly in the summer.

“Over the years, there have been some terrible crashes up there,” said Brookings Police Lt. Donny Dotson. “It’s amazing people walk away.”

Curry County Sheriff John Bishop doesn’t have figures, but says wrecks and fatalities in this area pretty much mirror national statistics.

Speed, immaturity, inexperience, alcohol and drugs all play a part.

“Young adults do not understand speed,” Bishop said. “They can get into trouble before they realize they’re in trouble and don’t have time to react. You have that, ‘I’m indestructible’ attitude with speed.”

In general, those numbers are higher for male drivers who aren’t wearing a seat belt and are speeding while talking on their cell phone.

Cell phones hadn’t been invented when Bishop was growing up, he said with a laugh.

And electronics are fast becoming a major contributor to wrecks – in all age groups.

Bishop guesses about 50 percent of accidents in the county are directly associated with the use of electronic devices.

He’d like to see the annual state-sponsored seatbelt “blitzes” replaced with focuses on drivers using cell phones.

“There are way more people violating cell phone laws than seat belt laws,” he said.

 Teens know alcohol and drugs impair the brain, yet some feel impervious.

The driver of Wiley’s vehicle, Patrick Hermes, was arrested for DUII and reckless endangering because the young girls were in the vehicle.

He got off easy; some pay for it with their lives.

“My sister, her boyfriend and my best friend all drink and drive and drive high along with text at the same time,” a teen wrote on YouTube late last month. “No matter what I say, I know they won’t stop until something bad happens to them. They’ll be forced to stop when they’re dead. I wish they would just stop.”

It can only take a second for a distracted driver to misjudge their speed in a turn, hit a patch of gravel, not see the car stopped in front of them or that pedestrian walking across the road.

Teen drivers are well-aware of the risks in driving – especially if driving drunk or stoned, while texting, not wearing a seatbelt or when passengers are distracting them.

It rarely deters them.

“I’m too pro to die,” one posted on YouTube last week.

“I text and drive to challenge myself,” wrote another.

Wiley made reference to Hermes’ heavy drinking and driving at high rates of speed  in letters she sent to him while he was incarcerated at the county jail.

It’s not just alcohol, either. Experience and immaturity come into play, as well.

Experience is a no-brainer. A new driver has less experience than those who have held a license for many years.

And, although teens are loathe to admit it, immaturity plays a role.

The human brain, particularly the frontal lobe, is not fully mature until the person reaches their mid- to late-20s, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The frontal lobe is responsible for decision-making, paying attention, foreseeing possible consequences of behavior, adjusting behavior when situations change and impulse control – all needed to operate a two-ton vehicle safely.

An AT&T poll indicated that 61 percent of teen drivers look at their phone while driving; another 43 percent will text. All said they knew that was unsafe behavior.

Bishop is at a loss about the solution.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Just continued education. Kids will see others die of a drug overdose and they still do drugs. ...”

Teens surveyed in a national poll said they were more likely to forego using their phones if there were laws against it.

There are.

They also said they’d stop texting if their parents forebade it.

They do.

Turning off a cell phone takes a few seconds, about the same amount of time in which someone can be killed because they were distracted by that cell phone.

It’s not just teens, either – especially in Curry County, where the average age is skewed by a much older population.

Wiley said the couple have learned myriad lessons.

“We both don’t drink anymore,” Wiley said. “We’re turning our lives around. We’re going to church now. And we’ve learned not to take stuff for granted.”