A tragedy worth remembering

They say that time heals all wounds, but for the parents and loved ones of young people killed before they?ve reached the prime of life, the pain never really goes away.

The wounds of grief are still fresh for the families and friends of four Petaluma teenagers who died one year ago today. The teens ? all students at Casa Grande and San Antonio high schools ? were killed when the car in which they were riding pulled from East Washington Street onto Adobe Road in the path of a truck. Two other teens in the car were seriously injured.

It was not the first fatality involving teen drivers in Sonoma County and, unfortunately, it was not the last. Just last week, on Dec. 2, a 16-year-old Healdsburg girl was killed and three others injured when their car veered off the road and crashed into a tree. The 17-year-old driver did not have a driver?s license. The CHP also said that the driver and the girl who was killed were playing with the steering wheel, jerking it back and forth, just prior to the deadly crash. Over the last decade, a number of Petaluma teens have lost their lives in driving accidents ? and Casa Grande High School has endured most of these losses.

Investigators were unable to establish exactly why the 18-year-old driver of the car pulled out directly in front of a truck on that fateful Tuesday afternoon a year ago. Investigators did confirm that no mechanical error occurred, leaving them to conclude that the driver probably became distracted and either misjudged the distance to the truck or did not see it at all. Just before the accident, there were eight people crammed into the Ford Taurus. At the time of the collision there were still six teenagers in the car. Having that many teens in a car can easily distract even the most experienced driver, let alone an inexperienced 18-year-old driver.

While it is painful to be reminded of this tragedy, we think it is important that lessons be learned from it. Once again the message must be delivered to our young drivers that cars are not toys. They are tools of transportation.

Driving is not a right. It is a privilege.

Driving is dangerous. Every time anyone ? young or old ? gets behind a steering wheel they face potential injury and even death.

Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. Caution is not only prudent, it is mandatory.

To get that message across, several programs about driving responsibly are being presented in local schools.

? Every 15 Minutes is a two-day program for high school juniors and seniors, which challenges them to think about drinking, driving, personal safety, the responsibility of making mature decisions and the impact their decisions have on family, friends, and others. The program?s name is derived from the fact that in the early 1990s, every 15 minutes someone in the United States died in an alcohol-related traffic collision. However, with the implementation of new laws, grass roots organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving and other programs, the death rate is now one every 30 minutes, a figure that continues to be unacceptable.

? Alive At 25 is a program that addresses the high number of traffic-related fatalities in the 16- to 24-year-old age group. In Colorado, where this program originated, drivers are required to participate in this 41⁄2-hour class to avoid waiting an extra year to receive their driver?s licenses. Taught by police officers, sheriff?s deputies and state troopers, the class is credited with a dramatic decrease in teen driving fatalities. Alive At 25 touches on driver inattention, distractions, driving at night or with too many people in the car, as well as alcohol and drug use.

? The Courage to Live program, a nationwide effort spearheaded locally by Superior Court Judge Gary Nadler of Petaluma, educates younger teens in junior high schools about the dangers of drinking and driving, the importance of safety and responsibility, and how to develop skills to resist pressures to use drugs and alcohol.

We laud the people and agencies who have brought these vital programs to our community and hope that their efforts, alongside the painful memories of a year ago, will help prevent further teenage traffic-related fatalities in Petaluma.