The toughest day of a young newspaper reporter's career is the first time he or she is assigned to respond to the scene of a serious highway accident.
We all know on an intellectual level that lives suddenly change forever when automobile accidents happen. However, a person cannot really "know" about serious accidents until they have been there and experienced one on a visceral level, or even worse, had a loved one involved in an accident. It's an experience that changes you forever, and one you never want to repeat. It's a sobering experience to be confronted with the fact that death is our constant companion.
We don't know for certain, but we imagine that law enforcement officers have developed coping mechanisms to help them process the tragedies that are a part of their working lives. Still, Sunday morning's accident west of Hayden had to be particularly frustrating for Colorado State Patrol troopers who responded to the scene. Nine adults and teens, all younger than 25 and none wearing a seatbelt, were in a sedan that rolled down an embankment off U.S. Highway 40. Some of the occupants of the vehicle were seriously injured.
The State Patrol in Northwest Colorado has been very active in a program called Alive at 25 meant to avert tragedies like the one that unfolded on U.S. Highway 40 during the weekend. The educational outreach program is based on the knowledge that if drivers ages 16 to 24 can be kept safe, their chances of dying in a traffic accident begin to go down significantly at the age of 25.
Troopers in Routt and Moffat counties, many of them with youngsters of their own, have gone to great lengths to reach out to teen drivers in the area and help them understand the kinds of driving habits that will keep them safe.
State Patrol Technician Don Moseman is the statewide coordinator for Alive at 25. He said this week that the program has three distinct phases. First, teens are told that they account for 14 percent of the nation's drivers and are involved in 28 percent of accidents -- a two to one ratio. They are asked to tell their instructors why they think that's true.
Next, they are shown an interactive video that illustrates many of the factors that typically contribute to an accident involving teen drivers. Those factors match up remarkably closely with what is known about Sunday's accident on U.S. 40, including that there was an atypical number of passengers in the vehicle.
Among the lessons students are taught is that it doesn't pay to become impatient when following a driver who is driving below the posted speed limit. On a car trip from Steamboat Springs to Denver, the difference between driving 60 mph and 65 mph adds inconsequential minutes to the trip. The lesson to be learned is that good health, and life itself are more precious than 15 minutes.
The final phase of the course deals with the consequences of decisions made behind the wheel.
"We tell them that every decision in life has a good and bad consequence, and driving is no different," Moseman said.
Finally, the students are asked to make a promise to change at least one thing about their current driving habits.
Since 1996, 40,000 teens have been exposed to the lessons of Alive at 25, and only one of those 40,000 has died in a vehicular accident, Moseman said.
"We know it works," he added.
The rules governing teenage driving in Colorado are about to undergo some significant changes when a law goes into effect July 1. It will require new drivers to take training, with Alive at 25 as one of the options, or wait up to a year to get their learners permits and full license.
Teenagers don't enjoy being lectured, and parents have a natural tendency to avoid the glares that sometimes accompany speeches about safe driving. Don't let that stop you. This is too important.
Sit down with your young driver and write out a "contract" governing your expectations about their driving habits.
And tell them that there is no reason on earth for nine youngsters to
squeeze into a sedan for a midnight run on the highway.
Do it for yourselves. Do it for a state trooper. Do it for a young reporter.
And do it for your kids.