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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Talk

A couple of weeks ago, a local teenager was killed in a wreck. Just 16 years old, he was riding in an SUV traveling at a high rate of speed, when the teen driver failed to negotiate a curve. The vehicle rolled, and the unbelted kid was pronounced right on the scene.

Jayden’s bright red soft top Jeep was his pride and joy. As he and Brian, best friends since grade 4, met after school, the evening looked promising. Brooke and Lauren were coming with them to the mall tonight to hang out and maybe catch a movie.

After the wreck was splashed on the news, it cut close, as these things frequently do. As the father of a teenager who has just arrived at driving age, along with many of her friends, I have become acutely aware of this latest new thing to worry about.

It was a bright, sunny, clear fall day, and the four teens took down the soft top and climbed in. Money in their pockets and hours of free time beckoned them to a night of fun. They turned on the stereo and cranked it up. Seatbelts were ignored, all the better for wrapping arms around each other, you know.

I told her to think about what was going through this kid’s mind just before the wreck. Was he having fun? Was he scared? Was he unable to get out even if he had realized the danger and wanted to? Did he know that his friend would drive like an idiot, or did he think driving fast was just harmless fun?

Jayden looked over at Brooke, her blonde hair blowing in the wind, and she smiled back at him. He suddenly remembered a hilarious prank that he’d seen pulled in the locker room before lunch, and turned to tell Brian about it, but he was already locked in a passionate hormone-driven teenage kiss with Brooke in the back seat.

I asked her if she ever thought about what her friends were capable of as drivers. Did she think she could accurately judge their character behind the wheel? Would she feel brave enough to say something to the driver if stupidity was being committed? Would she feel confident enough to stay behind in the first place if they encouraged her to go and she had reason to worry?

Jayden laughed, reached back to punch Brian and call him names, and told them to get a room. Lauren looked up, and her eyes widened in horror. Someone was yelling. Brooke screamed. Jayden turned back around. The road curved right, but they were barreling straight at 60 on the 35-limit road. He yanked the wheel to the right as they crossed the center line.

She looked back at me and gave me some mild and sort of noncommittal assurances. She was listening, and probably taking me seriously, but was confident that it could never happen to her. I know that look. I used to wear it, too.

The Jeep went up on its left wheels, yet made the corner. Lauren was thrown onto Brian’s lap. Brooke managed to hang on. Screaming. Crossing back over the line, Jayden was now aimed off the embankment to the right. He made another panic yank to the wheel, to the left. The jeep momentarily fell on all tires and then went all the way up on its right tires. Lauren and Brian were both launched up and out of the Jeep.

So I asked her this. I said, last week, if I sat you and the dead kid down side by side and gave this same lecture to both of you, do you think he’d respond to my worries about like you are? Yes? But now he’s dead. Do you think if I had lectured him last week that he would have taken me seriously? What could have prevented this stupidity?

As the Jeep swerved back to the left on its right tires and crossed the line, it was tipped up to the point of no return. Janelle, mother of three, with her two littlest ones in car seats behind her, was coming the other way from the grocery store. She was adjusting the AC when a red blur caught her eye. Looking up, she didn’t even have time to scream.

So I told her, again, that when she goes anywhere with friends, she needs to carefully consider what the driver might or might not do. Was it worth risking her life just to not be embarrassed by saying no or asking the driver to behave? Who knows, maybe the dead kid had asked the driver to slow down and got ignored, making him a helpless passenger unable to save himself.

The Jeep came right up over the hood of Janelle’s sedan as it rolled over. The impact was enough to deploy Janelle’s airbag, but the Jeep’s main point of intrusion was through the windshield, shoving the roof back and downward as it rolled over the top, leaving red paint on Janelle’s hood like bloody streaks. The airbag was not able to fully protect her head from the inward and downward collapse of the roof.

So, I went on, imagine yourself in that car instead of that kid. At what point do you wish you had not gotten in, and now it is too late, your fate out of your hands?

The leading edge of the roof of Janelle’s sedan caught the Jeep and flipped it violently into the air, the centrifugal force throwing Jayden and Brooke in different directions. Brian and Lauren fell onto the pavement close together, sliding and tumbling off the right shoulder into the bushes.

She looked thoughtful. Maybe the message was getting through. It’s hard to tell, but one can always hope.

The Jeep came to rest on its top, unrecognizable as a Jeep except for the ubiquitous roll cage. Some tires were torn, its hood was in the ditch, the engine partially dislodged, and debris everywhere. Jayden and Brooke landed on different sides of the road. Janelle’s car rammed into the opposite embankment and came to rest. It became quiet.

I love my kids. And this one and I have had this talk before, but the recent death was cause to bring it up again. Never pass an opportunity to use a tangible real-life lesson, you know. It’s different when it is not an anonymous face in the newspaper from somewhere far away, or an overplayed re-enactment done at a school assembly.

I later found out that the first caller reported “kids lying all over the road” and that one of the cars was smoking. It was in the 3rd-due from Station 51, and the way it was dispatched sounded a little hairy, but the “all over the road” part was toned down to “possible ejection”. I picked up Engine 51 and came online. Engine 56 arrived first and gave the size up from hell. Declared MCI, multiple patients on the ground, three trapped requiring extrication including two car seats, request three more ambulances, launch a helicopter, close off the road in both directions, and more manpower.

So I can only hope the message sticks, and try to not go completely crazy when she’s not under my direct supervision and protection. I can’t guard her forever, and I have to trust that she will learn how to make sound decisions. She is an outstanding daughter, and though we have our moments, she is nothing like the nightmares my friends told us teenagers would be like. I’ll take three.

Beyond all reason, none of the patients in this incident were critically injured. Major road rash and a few broken bones for the kids. Minor head trauma and lacerations on the Mom. This should have killed all the teenagers and the Mom, should have left the two little ones with a distant memory of the crash that killed their Mom. But that’s not how the cards were dealt.

Hours later, I had a chance to sit my daughter down. I said, remember what we were talking about a couple of days ago? Well, guess what I just got back from? I said, what do you want to bet those kids would have rolled their eyes had I given them The Talk this morning? It was never going to happen to them, just like it won’t happen to you. I got three hugs from her today. I can’t remember the last time I got three hugs in one day.

Only broken glass on the shoulder, some discoloration from spilled fluids, and orange spray paint on the roadway marking skids, impacts and final resting points give a clue to the day’s events. We were all fairly sure that there would be multiple critical injuries, and possibly a fatality in the mix, which resulted in a full scene workup by the Sheriff's Office that kept the road closed for hours.

Not this time, though. And somewhere, the next fatality knows....won’t happen to them. Never.


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