State lags in teen driving laws

Increase in fatalities has lawmakers seeking stricter licensing

Peter Swalm, an 18-year-old Lawrence High School student, was killed in a two-car crash south of Lawrence in April 2001. Swalm was driving east on County Road 458 when he collided head-on with a westbound vehicle driven by Kristi Sanchez, of Lawrence, near the intersection of County Road 458 and East 1135 Road. In 2006, 17,000 teenagers where involved in car accidents in Kansas.

The Swalms lost their son, Peter Swalm, who was 18, in an April 2001 car accident along County Road 458. Peter's older sister, Chris Swalm, said when the family members meet at the accident site, they pray together and talk to Peter. We

At the edge of a cornfield a mile past the Lawrence city limits, where one county road runs into another, a cross stands with peeling white paint and the name “Peter” etched in black.

It’s a marker for Peter Swalm, 18, who died one April morning six years ago on his way to school. Traveling along County Road 458 south of Lawrence, his car crashed into the vehicle of a 21-year-old woman who was turning left. Peter was weeks shy of graduating from Lawrence High School.

Each day, Peter’s family drives by the cross.

“It is there to partly remember Peter. It is also to encourage others to slow down,” said his father, Mike Swalm.

Since 2001, 16 teenagers in Douglas County have been involved in a vehicle accident where at least one person has died, according to numbers from the Kansas Department of Transportation. Teenage drivers represent 16 percent of all drivers involved in fatal accidents in Douglas County.

In Kansas in 2006, more teenagers than any other age group – 17,000 of them – where involved in car accidents.

Kansas Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. John Eichkorn said that it is young drivers’ inexperience and risk-taking behavior that leads to the high number of fatalities.

“Teenagers are more inclined to take risks than adults. A lot of times they don’t have the life experience of, ‘If I do this, I may very well end up killing myself or someone else.’ That combined with inexperience is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Kansas near top of list

For three years, the physician-led group End Needless Death on Our Roadways ranked the deadliest states in the country for youth-related accidents.

In the data recently released for 2005, Kansas ranked 11th for the percentage of traffic deaths that involved at least one 16- to 20-year-old. It was a jump in the wrong direction for a state that ranked 28 out of 50 the previous year. The numbers show that for Kansas, 18.7 percent of all fatal car accidents in 2005 included someone between 16 and 20 years old.

Jim Hanni, executive vice president of AAA in Kansas, said he wasn’t surprised to hear that Kansas ranks near the top.

“Kansas does tend to lag behind in these areas,” Hanni said.

The state is one of four that doesn’t have a graduated licensing system where young drivers gradually work their way up to a license with full driving privileges.

In Kansas, special guidelines are put in place for 14- and 15-year-olds who get instructional permits and a restricted driver’s license. However, once someone turns 16, the driver can obtain an unrestricted license.

Possible legislation

For the past few state legislative sessions, bills have been proposed that would place more restrictions on young drivers as they go through the licensing process.

State Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, once proposed that teenagers wait until they are 18 before getting full driving privileges.

“As a society, we spend a tremendous amount of time talking to our children about the dangers of drugs and the dangers of guns,” Burroughs said. “Yet, we throw them the keys to 5,000-pound bullets.”

Burroughs’ bill never passed. And last session, a new bill was proposed that limited the number of passengers, the use of wireless communication and driving hours for those who just received their license.

That bill failed, but a group of legislators is expected to meet this summer to continue work on it.

“In a sense, we would like to give them more experience, more time to mature before sending them out behind the wheel of a vehicle,” said Eichkorn, of the highway patrol. “We also want to try to curb or limit some of the other things that end up contributing to some of the risk-taking behavior.”

KDOT data show that more than any other age group, teenage drivers have accidents where the use of cell phones, speeding and reckless or aggressive driving are contributing factors.

“We’re not talking about any one thing. It’s not just cell phones. It’s not just speeding. It’s a lot of things wrapped up into two primary concepts, which is inexperience and high risk-taking behavior,” Eichkorn said.

What to change

Kim Downing can rattle off a list of what should change to make teenage driving safer.

Just weeks before Christmas in 2002, Downing’s sister-in-law, Tisha Downing, was killed in a head-on collision. The 31-year-old woman left a 6-week-old baby girl and husband behind.

An 18-year-old driver was attempting to pass two cars and a semitrailer and crashed head-on into Tisha Downing in a no-passing zone.

Since the accident, Kim Downing said, her brother, Ron Downing, has raised his daughter with the help of his family. Still, Francesca, who survived the wreck with minor injuries and is almost 5, is without a mother.

“Not knowing her is very hard,” Kim Downing said.

Kim Downing believes laws need to change to target those who have multiple speeding offenses. She also thinks there should be more educational programs and parental involvement before teenagers are given licenses. And she is a supporter of teenagers getting their driving privileges gradually.

“Someone of a certain age group, at 16, who has never lost anybody or anything, the realization of death and the outcome and the consequences is not as highly developed,” Downing said.

Remembering daily

Jan Swalm has spent a lot of time thinking about what could have made a difference in her son Peter’s accident. It would have helped if the car had an air bag. And if Peter were driving slower.

Speeding was a contributing factor in the accident. Both Mike and Jan Swalm urge teenagers to slow down.

“The most common factor is speed. Kids feel like they are bulletproof,” Mike Swalm said. “Kids just need to slow down. You really don’t get there that much quicker.”