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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

Summer months prove deadliest to teen drivers

BY LAREN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ben Stalets, 16, of Rossford focuses intently on the task of parallel parking with driving instructor Chris Gerdeman. Ben Stalets, 16, of Rossford focuses intently on the task of parallel parking with driving instructor Chris Gerdeman.
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Amanda Zakeri of Toledo has heard it all.

She has heard stories of head injuries, spine injuries, and the devastation of families when teenagers like her are seriously hurt in car accidents.

Her father, Dr. Ahmad Zakeri, a neurological surgeon at Toledo Hospital, has seen countless accident victims over 17 years, and shares those tragic stories with his daughter.

"I see so many devastated families here," Dr. Zakeri said. "It's not so much to make her afraid, but to make her think of things that can happen. Just so she knows these bad things happen."

July and August are the deadliest months for 16 and 17-year-old drivers based on a recent AAA traffic safety study, said Laurie Ghesquiere, the association's northwest Ohio spokesman.

Teenage crash deaths average nearly 20 percent higher in those two months than the rest of the year. An average of about 100 drivers ages 16 and 17 are killed nationwide in crashes during July or August, the AAA study found.

"They tend to be with other teen drivers and are a little more distracted than normal," Ms. Ghesquiere said.

"I'm not saying they're all goofing around, but they tend to be more easily distracted," she said.

Ben Stalets keeps an eye on what's behind his car as he practices maneuvering in reverse with instructor Chris Gerdeman. Ben Stalets keeps an eye on what's behind his car as he practices maneuvering in reverse with instructor Chris Gerdeman.
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Jackie Zakeri said daughter Amanda, who will turn 16 in August, will have strict rules to help her stay focused behind the wheel.

Among them: "No other kids in the car for at least a year," she said. "One-hundred percent of her attention has to be on the road and what's going on around her, not thinking anything else or discussing anything else," Mrs. Zakeri said.

Jim Rightnowar of Sylvania said his 16-year-old son, Arin, won't be allowed to drive at night and only one other teenager will be allowed in the car with him.

"You can't make irrevocable mistakes," he said.

Arin, who can get his license in the next few weeks, said when he rides with his teen friends, he's not afraid to speak up if someone is driving irresponsibly.

"You've got to have a point and know when to say, 'Knock it off. We're driving still, and if you're going to keep distracting me, then you're going to get out,' " he said.

Sgt. Jim Kertesz of the Ohio Highway Patrol said teenage drivers' lack of experience and distractions - such as radio and cell phones - contribute to the increase in accidents involving teens.

"Focus your attention strictly on driving and be aware of your surroundings," Sergeant Kertesz said. "That means leaving cell phones off, leaving the radio off, and telling friends to quiet down."

Mrs. Zakeri said her daughter will keep her cell phone off while she's in the car or she'll lose driving privileges.

"Just the distractions these kids have nowadays," Mrs. Zakeri said. "It's just scary."

Amanda said she has every intention of following that rule because a couple of her friends have gotten in accidents when they were text messaging or talking on their cell phones while driving.

Jim Mitchell, a classroom and driving instructor for Master & Sylvania Driving School's Sylvania Township office, said teenagers don't entirely understand the responsibility of driving.

"When you get a bunch of kids in the car, the radio going, cell phones, and when you get a young person who hasn't had experience on the road, then all of a sudden - boom - you've got problems," he said.

Mr. Mitchell said statistics show that at least 1 in every 5 people will be in some type of car accident during a lifetime.

"They think they're invincible," the driving instructor said of teenagers. "They think nothing is going to happen to them. But we let them know it can happen, and it can happen very quickly."

Ohio's Graduated Licensing Law, which was enacted in 1999, was aimed at reducing the number of teenage accidents and deaths.

The law requires temporary permit holders to drive with a licensed driver who is 21 years old or older. Those under age 17 cannot drive without a licensed driver between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

The number of accidents last year involving 16 and 17-year-olds decreased by more than 8,000 from 1999 and the number of fatalities dropped by 22.

Through the stories Amanda Zakeri has heard from her father, she has begun to understand the responsibility she has while she's behind the wheel.

"I not only have my life in my hands, but others," she said.

Contact Laren Weber at: lweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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