Red, yellow and green carnations rest at the bottom of a windy dip in the road, where 17-year-old Dennis Woolford, of Phoenix, apparently crossed the double-yellow line while driving his 1997 BMW and crashed head-on into a 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee driven by Gabrielle Payne, 17. Payne survived the crash. Woolford didn’t.
Police are still investigating the cause of the accident.
As hundreds gathered Tuesday night at Loyola Blakefield School in Towson to remember the 11th-grader, who played soccer and football, Woolford’s friends reflected on a life that affected many who now feel robbed.
“Dennis was just a kid you couldn’t stay mad at, no matter what he did,” said Corey Golden, 16, of Hereford. “He truly was thankful he was alive, and he enjoyed every second of it. He was the best friend you could ask for and the greatest son you could ask for. It’s such a shame he had to go like this.”
Woolford is now one of more than 1,700 people since 1994 to die in an accident involving a driver between the ages of 16 to 20. Statewide, the number of teen driving deaths has decreased steadily since 1999, when Maryland had a 14-year high in teen deaths with 156.
State officials believe the decline in teen fatalities is directly related to the graduated driver’s license program. The program, launched in 1999, staggers driving freedom through a learner’s permit and a provisional license, which requires drivers to log 60 hours of supervised driving practice. It also places restrictions on teen drivers to avoid distractions, such as banning cell phone use and riding with teen passengers.
But since the program started and the General Assembly passed several more restrictions, there remains questions on whether the program is a success, because the numbers in several counties do not reflect the statewide trend.
Safer cars, but more teen driversThe Examiner’s review of State Highway Administration data on teen drivers over the last decade has shown that among the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., suburban counties, Anne Arundel and Montgomery have seen an increase in teen driver fatalities since 1999.
Anne Arundel went from six in 1999 to 14 in 2007, while Montgomery went from six to eight.
Meanwhile, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County saw significant decreases in teen driver deaths. Baltimore had four fatalities last year, compared with 14 in 1999. Prince George’s dropped from 25 to 14. Howard dropped from four to two deaths. Carroll saw no change during the same time period.
Baltimore, Carroll and Harford each have seen increases in crashes involving teen drivers between 1999 and last year, while Baltimore City and Montgomery and Howard have seen notable decreases in teen crashes while Anne Arundel stayed about the same.
Yet, transportation officials insist the license program is working, pointing to the 29 percent drop in fatalities statewide involving teen drivers since 1999.
“The overall trend of crashes and fatalities are going down on a regular basis, so the program does work,” said John Kuo, administrator of the Motor Vehicle Administration. “A majority of states have a similar program because of the program’s success.”
Fatalities may also be declining because vehicles are much safer today than they were a decade ago, with manufacturers using more high-strength steel in new models to help lessen crash impact. For 2002 to 2005 model-year vehicles, there were 79 driver deaths per million — a 30 percent decline from 1989 to 1993 model-year vehicles, when there were 110 driver deaths per million, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
But Kuo suggested that there are more teen drivers on the road since 1999, which means the driver-to-crash ratio has dropped.
“I believe it’s an anomaly, and we’re seeing a downward trend,” Kuo said. “With more cars on the road, the potential is greater. What you have to factor in is the severity of crashes, and we’re seeing fewer deaths.”
‘I can wait awhile for my license’Christina Russell isn’t like most 16-year-olds. She’s not eager to obtain that one privilege — and freedom — desired by most teenagers.
Standing outside an Eldersburg church between funeral services for two of her friends who died in a high-speed car accident in April, the Sykesville teen said in a quivering voice, “I think I can wait awhile for my license.”
As for riding with other teenagers who are behind the wheel, “I just don’t know who I can trust,” she said. “There have been so many crashes and deaths lately.”
That’s the kind of consideration Howard County police hope to instill in teen drivers such as 17-year-old Tom Barrett, who along with hundreds of other Atholton High students and parents watched graphic videos and images of teen-related crashes, including one where only the legs of a teen driver could be seen after the car from which he was ejected overturned and landed on top of him.
“It’s a real eye-opener to what can happen,” said Barrett, of Clarksville.
A number of high-profile accidents this year have involved teen drivers, including:
• Candy Lynn Baldwin, 19, of Millington, who fell asleep while driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in August. Her car struck a tractor-trailer that went off the bridge, killing its driver. The crash resulted in upgrading parts of the bridge.
• Andrew Noel, 19, of Ellicott City, who died in July while crossing Route 29 from Interstate 70 after his motorcycle was struck by an oncoming vehicle. His death sparked immediate improvements on Route 29.
Even though AAA announced last year that fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds in states with programs like Maryland’s have declined, other transportation groups say teenagers are getting driving privileges too early and creating more hazards.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety issued a report this month calling on states to raise the driving age from 16 to 17 so teen drivers get more practice behind the wheel.
“At any age, when you are a new driver, you are a higher crash risk,” said Anne McCartt, the institute’s senior vice president for research.
“But if you take a 16-year-old and 17-year-old new driver, you’re going to see that the 16-year-old has a higher crash rate.”
The institute points to New Jersey, the only state with a licensing age of 17, which has a lower crash rate compared with other states.
Officials at the National Motorists Association say license tests on actual roadways with moving traffic give licensing agencies the best view of a driver’s ability.
But the state MVA doesn’t offer road tests because it would take too long to handle the large number of people seeking licenses, Kuo said. The closed track offers MVA officials a look at how drivers use their mirrors and signals, as well as their ability to stop, park and drive in reverse.
MVA officials said they were studying a possible age change.
Learning as they goThe institute rates Maryland high on its license program because of its restrictions on teen drivers, including recent laws passed by the General Assembly prohibiting teen drivers from using cell phones or having underage passengers while driving.
A new law went into effect Wednesday that raises the time teens can hold on to their permits — from one year to two years, allowing for more practice.
Drivers can get a permit at 15 years, 9 months, then obtain a provisional licenses six months later. Drivers must then complete 60 hours of supervised driving before receiving a full license. Under the provisional licenses, teen drivers cannot use cell phones while driving or have underage passengers.
Some say these factors alone will help continue to reduce crashes and fatalities by focusing attention to the road, as distractions are considered the No. 1 cause of teenage fatalities.
“Maryland has made a significant step forward in teen driving safety,” said Ragina Averella, government affairs director for AAA Mid-Atlantic, a longtime champion of the graduated driver’s license program.
But there is no solid method in place to validate certain aspects of the program, such as the 60-hour logbook. Kuo acknowledges that the MVA must trust both teen drivers and parents.
“[The graduated driver’s license] program is not easy to enforce,” McCartt said. “But it is easier to enforce if parents are backing it up.”
Paul Starks, vice president of I Drive Smart Inc., a Montgomery County driving school, said although no program is perfect, the one used by the MVA does well to train drivers.
“No one is a great driver after the classes,” Starks said. “When they are on the road, that’s when the real learning begins.”
Along with the graphic images, Howard police said during the video shown at all high schools that three out of four crashes involving teens were not the result of alcohol, but of excessive speed.
“They feel like they’re invincible, that nothing is going to happen,” Sgt. Frederick Von Briesen, Howard’s traffic enforcement supervisor, said of teen drivers.
One thing the MVA can’t overcome is the natural overconfidence teen drivers acquire once they learn the basics at driving schools, even at ones like Starks’ that employ only experienced police officers as driving teachers.
“I’m pretty aware of those around me, and I believe I’m a good driver,” said Jessica Stout, 16, of Columbia. “But then again, I haven’t been driving that long.”
Parents hold the keysTo counter any flaws in the license program, parents must step in and control their children’s driving abilities and privileges, transportation officials said.
“When it comes to driving, there is a tendency to rely on the MVA and driving schools,” Kuo said. “We can’t pass a law or regulation to solve everything. Driver safety comes only with adequate practice and parental guidance. Ultimately, parents hold the keys, both figuratively and literally.”
Stout’s father, Don Stout, said he didn’t realize that he could take away his daughter’s driving privileges by not approving the issuance of a license, which he learned during a program that Howard County parents must attend if their high schoolers are to receive permits to park at the school.
“It’s a privilege that can be revoked, and I didn’t know that,” Stout said. “That’s something all parents should know.”
A parent’s role lies not only in regulating vehicle use or monitoring driving ability, but also in his or her own driving behavior and choice of cars. Howard police officials said some teens may model their driving behavior after their parents.
McCartt said parents should avoid buying high-speed cars, as well as older models; instead, they should focus on newer cars that meet high safety standards.
The Howard program has been very successful, officials said, and State Highway Administration statistics show a recent downward trend in crashes and fatalities caused by teen drivers.
“Some see it as a bother to be there, but if parents are involved with the child, they will see how much a role they play in keeping their kids and others safe,” said Von Briesen of the Howard police.
When 17-year-old William Reynolds died the night of his high school graduation when he crashed into a tree — an accident that police said was caused by excessive speed and not alcohol — Meade High parents created a safe driving program for the school’s students.
“Kids have to learn that it doesn’t take alcohol or drugs to cause an accident,” said Gloria Redmiles, of the Meade Parent-Teacher Association.
As Maryland continues to tweak its driver’s license program, educators, driving instructors, parents and teenagers have been bombarded by tragic stories of lives cut short because of poor decisions.
And many believe that may serve as the greatest educational tool for young drivers, even those at Loyola Blakefield who are trying to cope with the loss of a dear friend.
“Some kids won’t drive to school and are having their parents drop them off for now because of what happened,” said Golden, friend of the slain Woolford. “I know I’ve been more careful driving and would be wrecked if another one of my friends died this way.”