Doctor Crusades To Tighten Laws For Young Drivers

February 21, 2008 - Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Hartford

Keeping Teenagers Alive --------------------

By MAGDALENE PEREZ The Hartford Courant

Dr. Brendan Campbell still remembers the first time he saw a teenage driver die on the operating table. It was a spring night in 1996, and a 16-year-old had crashed his pickup truck into a tree. Doctors rushed the boy into the emergency room about midnight, but there was little they could do.

Campbell was a third-year med student at Hartford Hospital, and the boy was the first trauma victim he'd ever seen.

Campbell stood there looking at him and thinking: "He's got his hair moussed up to go out and he's never going to again."

That memory and a score of others is what today drives Campbell, now director of pediatric trauma at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, to work toward strengthening Connecticut's teen driving laws. He is a member of the Governor's Teen Driving Task Force, which was formed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in November in the aftermath of seven teenage deaths in car crashes over a four-month span last year.

The group includes parents, police, representatives from the Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the insurance industry and others including a 16-year-old high school student. The panel plans to make final recommendations to the governor in early May. Campbell was a natural choice to participate in the task force. Just months before the deaths of the seven teenagers in crashes in Bristol and Wolcott, Campbell was using a $50,000 grant from the Allstate Foundation to encourage pediatricians to teach teens about driving risks.

Together with the Injury Prevention Center at the children's hospital, Campbell worked to form the Connecticut Teen Driving Safety Partnership with the DMV, the American Academy of Pediatrics and !MPACT (Mourning Parents Act), a group of parents who have lost children in accidents.

In a survey of state pediatricians, the partnership found that 45 percent had lost a patient as a result of a car crash. In response to that survey, the partnership developed easy-to-understand handouts that doctors can use to outline current teen driving laws and to help parents reduce children's driving risks.

But Campbell doesn't believe that talking to kids is enough to prevent teenage driving deaths, which is why he advocates strengthening Connecticut's graduated licensing laws for teen drivers. Before the Governor's Teen Driving Task Force was formed, he had already worked with the driving safety partnership to develop recommendations to lengthen the teen driver permit phase, further restrict nighttime driving and toughen penalties for teens who violate the laws.

A new father, Campbell, 38, doesn't have his own teenage driver to worry about yet. But he throws himself at the task of reducing teen driving deaths with the resolve of someone who has had to look into parents' eyes and tell them their child wasn't coming back. In addition to his job at the hospital, he spends extra hours juggling weekly meetings with the task force and speaking to the media and pediatricians around the state.

On a recent Friday morning, Campbell set out at 6 a.m. for an hour drive to Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London to lecture doctors and nurses. He hooked up a PowerPoint in one of the hospital's conference rooms and got right to his message.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for 16- to 20-year-olds nationally, with nearly 10 deaths per day in the U.S., he said. And teen drivers are involved in a disproportionate number of crashes they represent 6 percent of drivers on the road, but are involved in 14 percent of fatal crashes.

The reason is simple, Campbell told the medical professionals. Teens are inexperienced and lack the maturity of older drivers. They're less skilled at responding to hazards, and not as able to control a vehicle, especially at high speeds, at night, and when other passengers are in the car.

Sixteen-year-old drivers are most at risk. By the time a driver is 17, his crash risk is cut nearly in half, according to numbers Campbell cited from the Journal of Safety Research. Similarly, learner permit crash rates are low, probably because those drivers are often supervised.

And that leads Campbell to his central point: The best way to keep teen drivers safe is to mandate longer periods of practice through graduated licensing laws.

"It's not when they have a learning permit that's the problem," Campbell told the doctors and nurses in New London. "It's when they have unrestricted licenses that they're at risk."

As Campbell talked about strengthening driving laws and increasing awareness, nods of approval were visible around the room. Rebecca Murray, a nurse practitioner at West Side Middle School in Groton, has spent years educating young people about driving risks after losing her 15-year-old son in a collision caused by another teen. But more needs to be done, she said.

"Many times, talk is cheap," Murray said. "One of my concerns is how do we get something like this really embedded into their brains."