Fatal NJ crash spotlights young drivers law
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey lawmaker who sponsored a law barring new drivers from carrying more than one passenger will look to see if the law needs to be strengthened, following the deadly crash of an SUV being driven by a high school football player and carrying seven of his teammates.
Four teens died in Saturday’s single-vehicle accident, including driver Casey Brenner, 17, who had a restricted license that allowed him to carry only one passenger unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, according to the Motor Vehicle Commission.
New Jersey has had a graduated driver’s license program for a decade. It was revised in 2009 to limit the number of passengers — even relatives — a teen driver can have in the car in order to limit distractions for drivers who don’t have a lot of experience on the road.
First-time drivers must have an adult in the car at all times for the first year. After that, they can obtain what’s called a Graduated Driver’s License, which allows them to drive without a chaperone but with only one other person in the car, among other restrictions.
A violation of the passenger limit is punishable by a fine of $100 but does not affect the driver’s license.
Brenner was driving the carload of teammates from Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, near Atlantic City, to meet other players at a restaurant to celebrate the last practice of the summer before scrimmages were to start. The eight boys ranged in age from 15 to 17 and were in a 2002 SUV that sat seven people.
State police are still investigating the cause of the crash — how fast the Ford Explorer was going and whether airbags were deployed when the car flipped over on the heavily-traveled Garden State Parkway.
Bob Coffey, the longtime football coach at Mainland, said one of the teens who survived the crash told him that Brenner wasn’t driving excessively fast and there wasn’t any particular distraction in the car.
He said they came upon abruptly stopped traffic ahead and Brenner swerved toward the guardrail, couldn’t get the car under control, then veered back into the traffic lane and the SUV began to roll.
It was unclear if the car was equipped with stability control features.
Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who sponsored revisions to the law in 2009, told The Associated Press he wants to take another look to see if more can be done to “keep our children safer.”
“The number of passengers is always a concern,” Wisniewski added. “The Graduated Driver’s License was designed to minimize distractions that take away from a young driver’s concentration on the road.”
The SUV crashed as it went around a crest on the road and came upon stopped traffic. It overturned several times, ejecting two passengers, one of whom was struck by a passing car, said Sgt. Julian Castellanos, a state police spokesman.
The four boys who died in the accident were all sitting on or toward the driver’s side.
Five out of the eight players were not wearing a seat belt; two of the four killed, including the driver, were wearing them.
“I want to learn more about the details of the accident to understand if there are gaps or problems with the Graduated Driver’s License that need to be corrected,” said Wisniewski, who heads the Assembly Transportation Committee.
According to the MVC, there are 5.7 million licensed drivers in New Jersey. Of those, about 125,000 have new driver restrictions, which besides the number of passengers, includes restrictions on the hours they can drive and requires a special decal to be placed on the license plate.
So far this year, MVC spokesman Mike Horan said, fewer than 1,500 drivers with graduated licenses have been ticketed for having more than one passenger.
Safety is always a concern when transporting students to and from athletic-related events, but it ultimately comes down to personal responsibility, said Kim DeGraw-Cole, assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“It could have been any day, any event when something like this happens,” she said. “You would hope families would know who’s driving whom.”
In comments left on newspaper website message boards, readers reacted indignantly to safety rules not being followed. Some wrote that the tragedy might have been prevented had there not been more passengers in the vehicle than allowed under the provisional license. Others implored parents to teach their kids that they aren’t immune to the risks of the road.
Many readers, however, noted that teenagers have been packing into cars for as long as cars have been around, and that sometimes accidents are no one’s fault.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton contributed to this report.