Teenagers’ Cars Are the Gifts That Keep on Wreaking Havoc

The multiple-teenager-fatality car crash remains a sad staple of journalism. And no wonder. The instant loss of several lives is so dreadful and the death of a young person so poignant that the combination is shattering. When a car-full of teens crash and die, the article can almost be assembled by rote: the devastated families, the grieving community, the investigation that will forever be “ongoing,” and the seeming arbitrariness of young lives snuffed out in a few seconds.

The aftermath of the one-car crash in Malverne, in which four teenagers from Queens died. Photo: ##http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/10/10/driver-of-car-that-crashed-killing-four-on-southern-state-parkway-out-of-hospital/##Kathryn Brown/CBS 2##

Give the Times’ Ginia Bellafante credit for breaking the mold in her Sunday “Big City” column, in which she commented on the 3:30 a.m. crash a week ago in which a 17-year-old drove his 2012 Subaru Impreza into a stand of trees off the Southern State Parkway near Malverne, a half-dozen miles from Richmond Hill, Queens, where the five teens in the car lived.

Bellafante pulled no punches in pointing out that even before he crashed his new car, the driver, who was the lone survivor, was violating three provisions of his learner’s permit: must have licensed adult in the car, cannot have more than one passenger under 21, may not drive between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Even more admirably, she focused her column not on the community’s sense of loss but on the “almost obsessive” car culture in which the five teenagers came of age. Indeed, judging from her reporting, other Richmond Hill young people were more keen to talk up their wheels than reflect on the loss of life:

As Ian Ramdas, an acquaintance of some of the victims of Monday’s accident, explained it to me, he had been a car enthusiast since at least age 14. When he graduated from John Adams High School in Ozone Park two and a half years ago, his parents, both nurses, bought him an Infiniti G37. “My car from the factory, no bragging, is $53,000 after taxes,” he told me… “When you modify a car to your standards, you’re expressing yourself; it’s our art,” he said. “Some people invest $3,000 in a car. That’s what I paid for the rims. That’s what makes me different from everyone else.”

To underscore the quote, the Times editors juxtaposed a photo of Ramdas leaning against the trunk of his gleaming Infiniti outside the wake for one of the dead 18-year-olds, with a shot of the smashed Impreza in the woods. However, the article’s headline, “Gift, and a Tragedy, Born of a Car Culture,” pales beside the original (inferred from the URL), “Teenagers’ Cars Are the Gifts That Keep on Wreaking Havoc.”

Bellafante also went against the grain by invoking and linking to a prior crash that, like last week’s, altered or ended the lives of five Guyanese teenagers. In that December 2007 incident, a new Dodge Charger that had just been given to one of the teens was driven, apparently at high speed, into a guardrail on the Van Wyck Expressway. Two of the five were killed, and the other three were brought to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in critical condition.

What happened, one wonders, to the three survivors? Five years on, are they physically or cognitively disabled? Do they drive? If they do, do they fetishize their cars like Ramdas and the other young people whom Bellafante interviewed? Did their schools and churches recruit them to warn against the reckless behavior that nearly killed them? Will they do so, now that another wreck has taken four more from their midst?

In departing from the standard teen-car-crash narrative, Bellafante’s column differs from the Times’ initial story, “4 Die in Crash at Notorious Turn on L.I. Road,” which largely blamed the “dead man’s curve” in the eight-lane highway for making the driver veer into the woods. Her column also stands in contrast to the paper’s depiction of the aftermath of another horrific multiple-teen fatal crash in our area — an August 2011 incident in which a 17-year-old driver and three passengers, all members of the Mainland High School football team in Linwood, NJ, were killed. The subsequent multi-part series described the commendable efforts to bind the team’s wounds but said next to nothing about the circumstances of the crash itself, which occurred on the Garden State Parkway on a Saturday morning in broad daylight.

No one has reported the Linwood vehicle’s speed, and it was missing from the New Jersey Police crash investigation report that I obtained last year. Nor was the speed reported for the 2007 Van Wyck Expressway crash. So it’s heartening that Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has contacted Subaru “to determine if the vehicle had a black box from which data about the vehicle’s speed can be downloaded,” according to CBS New York.

Disclosing and reporting the speeds in this and the other crashes won’t help the families. But the knowledge gained might help break the cycle of forgetfulness that makes future tragedies almost inevitable.

  • carma

    this was no ordinary Imprezza.  It was a sophisticated STI.  a 305 HP beast.  the parents are idiots for purchasing such a car for the driver.  To me, the only way a teen deserves ANY car is for them to earn it themselves doing summer jobs, etc…  It teaches a LOT more responsibility, rather than to have a free car from daddy/mommy.

    regarding a black box?  its a 50/50 chance.  subaru has put black boxes in all their cars in the UK, but im not sure whether it has one stateside.  On most GM vehicles now, there is a blackbox integrated with OnStar.

  • Bolwerk

    Bonerstorming teen males are the absolute dumbest people to give a set of car keys to.

    Again, switch the drinking age and driving age and much of this problem goes away.

  • al

    The Richmond Hill community is largely from the West Indies.  Combine the aggressive NY driving style with the sometimes risky driving habits of their or their parents home countries and you get this.

  • People often write about these incidents as if they’re inexplicable tragedies. I seem to remember hearing in journalism school (in the UK) that there was a greater tendency in the US to regard accidents as “just accidents,” while in the UK there tended to be a “someone must be to blame” attitude. The UK attitude has its shortcomings – but it may at least make people reflect on what’s causing these incidents and it’s good to see the NYT breaking with the paradigm.

    I’ve linked to this a few times on comments on this blog, so apologies to those who’ve seen it before, but I blogged recently about my experience of road safety issues in both New York and the UK and suggested some potential routes to bring down New York’s death toll: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/10/do-as-you-like-motorists-and-dont-blame.html . Spoiler alert: I don’t conclude that the NYPD’s enthusiasm for picking on cyclists is the answer.

  • KillMoto

    All new drivers licenses should be for 49cc scooters only.  Miles driven should be logged onto a smart chip embedded in the license.  Only after a minimum number of logged operating hours will that license be allowed to activate a motor car’s ignition.  This technology is readily available and cheap to implement – the washing machine in my apartment runs of smart cards.  The card itself costs $2, and card readers $5 to $10.  Not a lot of money to make our roads safer.

    Requiring kids to cut their teeth on scooters is a win-win for society.  Single seat transport ensures one overly aggressive, inexperienced driver endangers no passengers.  Other roadway users are impacted less as well (scooter T-boning a small car is much more survivable than SUV T-bone car; scooter running over pedestrian is more survivable than BMW Vs. human, etc.).  Smart-chip activation of vehicle ignition can enforce certain safety-related parameters as well.  The scooter won’t run between 9pm and 5am if the license is so limited.  The speed can be governed to “neighborhood speeds only” perhaps during the new driver’s first 20 hours of operation.  All these aimed at lowering the death and injury toll.

    Finally, parents of these new drivers will change their own bad driving habits.  Parents of teens will be more aware and forgiving to people on scooters (and dare I say, cyclists as well) knowing their own child is riding a scooter that looks just like that one.  

    Yes it’s sad when inexperienced, exuberant youths kill passengers, or other roadway users, or even just themselves.  Laws – enforced by police and parents can help.  Better road design can help.  But we as a society can help by making kids cut their teeth on smaller, less capable and yes – more vulnerable machines.  In the end it will result in roads safer for all users.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “All new drivers licenses should be for 49cc scooters only.”

    Actually, they should start on bicycles at age 12. 

  • Driver

    Another likely factor in this crash besides driver inexperience and speed was the extra weight in the car from 4 passengers.  It’s not just inexperienced drivers who fail to recognize the effect of all that extra weight on handling and braking. 

  • Anonymous

    This piece is framed entirely in terms of class-baiting, unfortunately, beginning with the joys of carlessness among “some” (who turn out to be “many of us” a couple sentences later) “upper middle-class” people who form the basis of (other upper middle class NY Times readers’?) generalizations about life in NY and ends with an emphatic silence after the grades needed befitting a parental gift of a new car are announced: “Minimally a 75.” Why, the reader is clearly supposed to exclaim, that very same grade would land my (wealthy UWS kids) in  . . . whatever punishment is the attachment/Waldorf version of leg-irons. 75! That’s 24.4 points short of adequate!!! And transpo-class panic rides again.

  • Joe R.

    My brother drove from an early age but he paid for all his cars. My parents could neither afford to buy him a car, nor did they feel they should. And being a car enthusiast, he always took pride in being able to drive well. The worst thing parents can do is to give their teenagers a car, especially teenagers who aren’t interested in cars except as status symbols. Such teenagers couldn’t care less about driving well, but they won’t hesitate to show off their new car’s power when their friends are riding with them. Powerful car plus inexperienced driver plus youthful sense of invulnerability equals a disaster waiting to happen. Bolwerk has it right-reversing the drinking and driving ages mostly fixes this entire problem. And so does the graduated licensing system suggested by KillMoto.

  • Joe R.

    The last paragraph of the article about the girl who felt she deserved a new car if she received at least a 75 made me laugh, especially when she said she wanted to be a lawyer. My parents, and the parents of most my friends, would barely accept a 90. If you got 85 you really had a lot of explaining to do. Even if we had all 95s or better we weren’t entitled to a car, much less a new one. It was our job” at that age to earn decent grades, period.

    Even though most won’t admit it, the real reason these parents give their teenagers cars is because they’re tired of chauffeuring them around, especially those who live in places like Long Island which don’t have any decent public transit options unless you’re going to Manhattan (and you still often need to drive to the train station). Parents should accept “chauffeur duty” until age 21 as part of the cost of parenting when you decide to live in a place with limited public transit. At least they know their children will be safe.

  • JamesR

    An Impreza STI is a ridiculously fast car. They also cost upward of $40,000. No teen has any business owning or driving one.

    ‘Car fetishism’ is neither here nor there. Plenty of cyclists fetishize about their carbon fiber Serottas or vintage lugged fixed gears. This is a case of too much car for too little driver and is not one that could have been prevented with changes to driving laws, as the driver was clearly breaking several to begin with (speed, number of passengers are two). Won’t be the last time.

  • Ben Kintisch

    So sad.

  • Nadia

    In the 2007 Crash…2 of the three victims taken to the hospital passed away as well. The lone survivor was the driver, his life has been changed forever.

  • denton

    Three articles, three tragedies, three high performance vehicles.
    Infinity G37
    Dodge Charger
    Subaru Impreza STI

    Any parent who puts their children in a car like this is really asking for trouble. Yeah, there’s a ‘car culture’ in the suburbs, but fill it with more sensible vehicles.

    I’d get my kid a VW Golf TDI, 40+mpg and only 140hp, which is aplenty by historical standards. Don’t like it kid, get your own. Want to mod it? Change the radio and put a sub in the back. lol

  • ZLwaldron

    Thank you for this. I have a teenaged nephew and 20 year old niece and am thankful that they use bicycles for their personal transportation.

  • Charles M. Fraser

    I noticed The Times’ Ginia Bellafante article also. Car culture. My mother left money for me to get a new car when I graduated from high school, so I’d have university transportation to and I’ve never forgotten being on two (of four) wheels on an offramp curve coming off Interstate 4 at the Lake Mary exit in Florida. Inexperience, and in New York everything seems so fast there’s nowhere for kids to learn from mistakes. ANd too peer pressured to learn before mistakes.

  • Charlesm Fraser

    I noticed The Times’ Ginia Bellafante article also. Car culture. My mother left money for me to get a new car when I graduated from high school, so I’d have university transportation and I’ve never forgotten being on two (of four) wheels on an offramp curve coming off Interstate 4 at the Lake Mary exit in Florida. Inexperience, and in New York everything seems so fast there’s nowhere for kids to learn from mistakes. And too peer pressured to learn before mistakes.

  • dmp

    It is so sad. Traffic crashes are the number one cause of death in children and young adults in this country. We have walks to end cancer, alzheimers, AIDS etc, but I’ve never seen a walk to end traffic crashes. Somehow it’s one ‘disease’ we think is acceptable and a fact of life. My heart goes out the family and friends of these kids.

  • mcoleman

    I choose to raise my children in a city where the need for a car on the dawn of your 16th or 17th birthday is unnecessary.  City kids do not need wheels the minute the law says they are entitled,.  They can use trains and buses to get around.  Many of us live in an affluent culture, where the pressure to hand our kids the keys to their own car seems to be a minimum requirement for adequate parenting. This culture needs to be addressed.

  • Pedal_Power_Pete

    Thanks, Charlie, for putting this article together.  I was thinking about the black box topic again tonight and wondered, if a vehicle has ONSTAR installed (in the immediate case of this Subaru that would not be an option), what does ONSTAR due if it senses the car struck a pedestrian?  Is it that sensitive?  Onstar would certainly record an impact.  I wonder, if ONSTAR can detect if a pedestrian is struck.  And if it could, then it should, without confirming with the driver of the car, dial 911.  This is along the lines of programming in a responsibility mode independent of driver conduct immediately after a crash, to work against a driver fleeing the scene.

  • E

    Jobolair airport in Ocala fl 5 teens made bmw m5 fly off the runway
    http://jalopnik.com/349540/flying-bmw-crashes-and-kills-occupants-darwin-wins

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The Weekly Carnage is a Friday round-up of motor vehicle violence across the five boroughs and beyond. For more on the origins and purpose of this column, please read About the Weekly Carnage. Fatal Crashes (5 Killed Since Oct. 20, 132 This Year, 10 Drivers Charged*) UES: Andrew Schoonover, 31, Struck by Sanitation Truck Driver; […]