Seventeen-year-old Kristen and fifteen-year-old sister Tasha left the house to the usual, “Have a great day girls” from mom.  Closing the front door behind them, almost in unison the girls answer “Thanks mom, you too.”

(Editor’s note: “Kristen” and “Tasha” are fictional sisters based on the author’s real-life experiences with two sets of family tragedies involving children killed in road crashes. The author’s story is fiction, but based on his too-real encounters with grieving families.)

Kristen and Tasha got into their 2008 VW Bug to head to school.  Tasha didn’t put on her seat belt.  Perhaps she thought the same thing 20 percent of Americans say to themselves (“I don’t want to, it’s not comfortable,”etc.)  when they choose not to wear their own safety belts.

Kristen, like so many around her in the Washington DC area, would tailgate cars, run yellow lights frequently, go in excess of 10 mph over the speed limit and even use her cell phone while driving for both talking and texting.  

She had passed driver’s education a year earlier, survived the six-month “Learner’s Permit” probation period — but no one had taught her safe driving was about managing key behavioral risks while driving her car.

Sudden impact

With only a mile left to school, as Tasha continued to press Kristen for more information about a new boyfriend, Kristen was suddenly cut off by the car next to her that had sped up and suddenly jerked into the little room that she had left in front of her.  With no room and almost hitting the car cutting her off, she turned the wheel to get away, bumped over the median and ran her VW Bug into a Ford F-150 coming the other way.  It all happened so fast, the unexpected crash – both vehicles doing at least 40 MPH on the parkway.

Tasha was dead immediately. With no safety belt, she was ejected right through the front window.  Kristen, awake and alive, was crushed between the dash board, steering wheel and the rest of the car. Her seat belt had saved her along with the air bag – but internal bleeding from the crushing blow slowly was taking her life.  

A driver of a passing car tried to help her get out of the car. Kristen’s internal injuries were too great. Holding the hand of this newfound friend – a stranger turned angel – she looked into his eyes and said, “I can’t breathe any longer” as her eyes spoke “thank you for helping me” while she passed into eternity. 

Teach your children

Each year 4,900 16-19 year olds in the United States die in cars driven by a member of their age group.  Almost all of them are preventable.

For the Jenkins family there would be no family Thanksgivings, New Years, holidays or vacations.  The girls, both nearly straight A students and active in many sports and clubs, were gone forever.

We must teach our children that when taking on serious risks like driving a car, bad, unpredictable stuff happens too often.  How many families have real conversations about this at home?

If you are reading this, go home and talk with your family about it. Read this with your children. Educate them – driving safe is about managing specific behaviors while driving. Create family agreements. Each family member should take 1-2 critical behaviors or risks of driving. And each time you drive, seek 100% safety on those risks. Once a week, as a family, for a few minutes over dinner share your successes in your chosen area of driving risks.

I hope to God we can find a solution to the top cause of fatalities of teens.  The answer lies in the same principles and methods of a Commitment-Based Safety method we teach at work.  It’s about focused daily commitment to managing key risks and building the discipline to manage these specific risks over time.

It’s about people of courage who have heart enough to care for us and ask us how we did today on our chosen driving risks. Let’s manage driving risks the best we can, take pride in our ability to be safer, and have many holidays together over the years rather than future visits to graveyards to see our children.

Driving a car safe is not about arriving, it’s about what we are doing (consciously managing) during the journey itself. Commit to a few specific behaviors. Focus, play your game at your best each day – and survive to enjoy your friends and family.