Reflecting on the tragedy of the young 'invincibles'

 

A high school boy who recently survived a catastrophic crash that killed three of his friends in Maryland was quoted by the news media, saying: "We felt invincible!"

The police estimated that their car was traveling at more than 70 miles per hour when it veered off the road and hit a tree. A pastor in our small town in eastern Montana said something similar when he spoke about a crash that occurred near our town: "They must have felt invincible."

Deadly accidents involving teenagers and vehicles occur daily across the United States, but perhaps they send out the deepest ripples of sorrow in small towns, where the victims tend to be known by just about everyone. Two families in my own rural Montana community are currently grieving over the loss of their 14-year-old daughters, who went out joyriding one night this fall.

My oldest granddaughter qualified for her driver's license this summer ... and I will spend the next 10 years aware that my phone might ring at 4:00 a.m. some morning, changing my world forever.

They met up with a 15-year-old and 16-year-old from a larger town nearby, and "borrowed" a car from one of the girls' mothers. The comma-shaped marks on the highway left by the vehicle's tires offer grim testimony to the young driver's actions that night. I imagine he must have thrilled his passengers by swerving back and forth across the centerline.

At 5 a.m., he made one swerve too many, left the road, and careened off an approach to a lane that connected to the highway. The car sailed hundreds of yards, then cartwheeled, throwing its unbuckled cargo into the darkness. The young driver One young man is now paralyzed for life.

After one of the funerals, a hundred people participated in a potluck reception where they talked in hushed tones about "lessons learned." Teary-eyed girls and somber boys sat together quietly, trying to process the realization that their friends were no longer among the living. Adults shook their heads and said, "Maybe other kids will think twice about driving recklessly. This shouldn't happen again."

It will, though, and in fact it already has. Just two weeks after those young people died, four teenage boys from a similar small town about 120 miles west of here piled into a pickup truck and headed east. The Highway Patrol guesses the driver was speeding when he swung wide on a curve. The pickup crossed the centerline and was hit head on by a semi-tractor and trailer. Three more youngsters were gone, pronounced dead at the scene. One had to be pried from the wreckage. The semi driver was not hurt physically, but no doubt will have nightmares about the accident for the rest of his life.

Our community was devastated.

Lecturing young drivers on the need for caution and the necessity of wearing seatbelts does nothing to reduce the likelihood that additional promising lives will be snuffed out in an instant next week, next month, or next year. Some of the adults who were tsk-tsk-ing at the funeral in our town probably even survived the same kind of risky behavior in their youth. They have forgotten how lucky they were – that they, too, once thought they were invincible.

Scientists who study brain development have concluded that the adolescent brain has not yet developed enough neurological connections to produce a sense of responsibility, or the consistent recognition of cause and effect. That doesn't happen until an individual reaches the early 20s – and for some folks, it never seems to happen.

My oldest granddaughter qualified for her driver's license this summer. I talked with her about her driver education teacher, and was satisfied that he has done his best to produce a cautious driver. I know, however, that her 15-year-old brain has not fully developed, and I will spend the next 10 years aware that my phone might ring at 4:00 a.m. some morning, changing my world forever. It did just that 25 years ago when her own mother, my daughter, was on a trip with her friend in our family car, 2,500 miles from home. My heart stopped beating until I heard my 18-year-old say, "I'm all right, mom, but the car is totaled."

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She writes in Roundup, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.