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Some fear rise in deadly crashes as Connecticut teens hit the road this summer

A perfect storm of conditions may make car travel more dangerous this spring and summer as inexperienced teen drivers hit the road after a year of being stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, AAA said.

COVID-19 rules are relaxing as the season of proms, graduations and the end of school — already considered a lethal time for young drivers — is going into high gear. It’s the reason AAA calls the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day the “100 Deadliest Days.”

Ten people died in crashes involving teen drivers in Connecticut during the summer of 2020, twice the average, said Amy Parmenter, spokeswoman for AAA in Greater Hartford. (During the 10-year period of 2010-2019, there had been 51 such deaths, for an annual average of about five.)

In fact, 2020 was the deadliest year on Connecticut roads for all drivers in the last decade, said Garrett Eucalitto, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. In what became a national trend, drivers of all ages found it irresistible to speed on open roads, with little traffic to slow them down.

This year, the potential is there for even more deaths, as many young drivers who had put off getting their licenses because of COVID-19-related closures venture out, said AAA and others. Like many businesses, the state Department of Motor Vehicles was closed to the public the first few months of the pandemic, as were driving schools, which had to postpone one-on-one driving lessons.

The DMV already granted 50,140 new driver’s licenses in 2021 as of May 31, compared to 81,929 in all of 2020, said spokeswoman Shaun Formica.

Like other driving school owners, Cici Petri of CC Driver Education in Tolland postponed in-person driving instruction last spring and moved classes online. She hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand.

“Everything was pushed back because of COVID, but the interest was no less,” Petri said. “There were a number of students who were upset they had to wait the 14 weeks.”

Even in normal times, many driving students wait out the winter and learn to drive in better weather. That longtime trend, coupled with spring fever and pent-up demand, has AAA worried.

“There are more deaths involving teen drivers during the summer months because teens tend to be on the roads more with unstructured time behind the wheel,” Parmenter said. “As COVID-restrictions are lifted and summertime traffic picks up, it is critical that teens with far less experience behind the wheel stay focused while driving, buckle up for every ride and drive within the posted speed limits.”

As parent Linda Strickland of West Hartford put it, “The weather is nice. They’ve been cooped up in their house during the pandemic. They’re wild and free.”

Last year’s deaths included two Litchfield High School students. They and three other teens were in a car that veered off a Torrington road early on June 9, 2020, struck a tree, went down an embankment and caught fire.

Speed was a factor in two of three recent deadly crashes in Coventry, Police Chief Mark Palmer said. Three young people died in two of the wrecks — one only 16. In both, the drivers were young adults, ages 19 and 21. Both crashes happened before dawn on a Route 44 straightaway.

Speaking generally of young drivers, Palmer said, “I think they take risks. It’s unfortunate.”

Strickland, formerly of Colchester, knows all too well the pain of losing a teenaged child in a crash caused by an inexperienced driver. Her 16-year-old son, Alex Bousquet, and an 18-year-old friend died after a July 19, 2006, crash in Maryland that happened when her older son, Ted Bousquet, 19, was behind the wheel. The three were on vacation together, she said.

“They were on their first road trip,” Strickland said. “First and last.”

Ted Bousquet, who only had a few years of driving experience, made a quick lane change so he could turn left into an unfamiliar shopping area, she said. He ended up stopping in the left lane under a traffic signal, and he couldn’t see the red arrow.

When the car behind him beeped, he went ahead and turned left, not knowing he was turning against the light, Strickland said. An oncoming car hit the car broadside, killing his brother at the scene. The 18-year-old friend died a few days later at the hospital.

Trooper John Wilson, who investigates fatal crashes on state roads in the Hartford area, said it’s possible more inexperienced drivers will be hitting the road as the weather warms.

“Especially now, everything’s back open. That’s going to bring more people out.”

Wilson said he investigated more than 30 deadly crashes in the past year, some involving teenagers.

“I wish I wasn’t one of the busiest people taking numbers at the troop right now,” he said.

He doesn’t have children old enough to drive, but “even now, it keeps me awake” at night, he said. “If it’s not speed, it’s impairment.” Or distractions.

“Honestly, it’s hard to get into a crash if you’re doing the speed limit unless you’re blowing up your Instagram feed on your cellphone,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what parents can do to impress upon kids that they’re not indestructible.”

His agency, the Connecticut State Police, has some ideas. It wants parents to work with police to keep their teenagers safe, Trooper Josue Dorelus said.

“The tips are simple,” Dorelus said. “Drive the speed limit, wear your seatbelt, eliminate distractions and give yourself the time to get where you’re going safely.”

Eucalitto, the deputy DOT commissioner, said 2021 needs to be the year Connecticut reverses the deadly trend of 2020.

Teens and their parents can do that by “avoiding selfish and dangerous behaviors that put lives at risk, and instead wearing seatbelts, adhering to speed limits, never driving while impaired and putting those cellphones down. We want these young adults to enjoy their summer and get home safely,” he said.

AAA stresses the role of parents. In addition to driving safely themselves, the organization recommends parents consider having their teens complete a comprehensive driver education course.

“Parents remain the best line of defense to keep everyone safe behind the wheel,” Parmenter says. “It’s never too soon to educate teens on the dangers of distracted driving, speeding and the impairing effects of alcohol and marijuana. But we can’t just tell teens about the dangers. We must model good behavior as well.”

Strickland, who is thankful one of her sons survived the Maryland crash, said if your teenagers become upset when you try to talk to them about driver safety — tough.

“If they get angry with you, let them get angry with you,” she said. “Put the foot down, man. Teach them. Talk to them.”

As a member of Mourning Parents ACT, Inc., Strickland has spoken to teens who are learning how to drive, and can’t wait to get back to it now that coronavirus restrictions are easing.

She is motivated by memories of the son she lost, Alex, the optimistic teen who “always found the good in people.”

“If I can save one teenaged life, just one, then I did my job,” she said.

 

 

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