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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CHAPTER DIRECTOR - IDAHO SIERRA CLUB
    Idaho could lead the nation in the transition to clean energy, and the Idaho Sierra Club is committed to making that happen. We seek to...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....