Car crashes claiming young lives

10:01 AM, Nov 27, 2007   |    comments
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High school should prepare students for many things. Attending a funeral is not one of them. At Princeton High School, students have endured six funerals in just 18 months. All six students were killed in car accidents. "It's been tough for the school because every class has been affected," says principal Pete Olson. It started March 1, 2006, along a rural Sherburne County road. The victim was JoBeth Miller, a 16-year-old girl who always reminded her friends to buckle up. JoBeth was a passenger in the back seat that afternoon. She was one of three teens in the car. Investigators say the driver, a 17-year-old boy, was going at least 70-86 miles an hour down a hilly street nicknamed "Roller Coaster Road." The car hit the ditch, rolled, then launched into the air before coming to rest by a telephone poll. "Worst day of my life," says Karen Cichy, JoBeth's mother. The other two survived, but JoBeth died immediately, despite wearing a seatbelt. "The hardest thing was calling her sister and brothers and telling them what happened," Cichy says. "I couldn't believe it." Her death stunned friends throughout the community. One of those friends was 15-year-old Tayler Otto. Just 18 days later, he died in another accident. The car was packed with five teenagers. Passengers say the driver, an 18-year-old woman, was speeding around sharp corners on a gravel road. She lost control and the car rolled, ejecting Tayler from the back sat. He usually wore a seatbelt, his family says, but not on this day. "He got in a car and didn't use what he believed in," says Karla Otto, Tayler's mother. "When you're with a bunch of kids... what you've been taught sometimes goes out the window. And that day, it did." Tayler's death was especially tough on his girlfriend, Jordain Rust. When Jordain's family got a new dog that day, she gave the puppy Tayler's nickname, "Tater." "He was a great comfort to her during this because he was just a puppy, and she cuddled and held him and grieved with him," says Doug Rust, Jordain's father. He never could've predicted what would happen one year later. On July 3, 2007, a car filled with three teenagers tried to cross Highway 95 east of Princeton. Investigators say they were not drinking or on the phone, but for some unknown reason, the car drove through a stop sign. A semi hit them, killing all three teens. (Another woman, 23-year-old Lisa Vandervegt, also died when her car drove into the accident.) The driver was 18-year-old Brian Olson of Otsego. His two passengers were Princeton students: Victoria Schumann-Swanson and Jordain Rust. "I didn't think it could happen to us," says Shawn Swanson, Victoria's stepmom. "No," echoes Doug Rust.
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No one thought it could happen to any of them -- not 16-year-old Jon Schnackenberg in October 2006, or 18-year-old Jonathan Townsend this past August. Townsend, who graduated from Princeton in the spring, worked hard to get his diploma on time. He loved customizing cars and wanted to make a career out of it. He was driving his prized 1972 Monte Carlo on Highway 169 when the left rear wheel suddenly fell off. Investigators say the lugnuts were not properly tightened. The car went into the ditch and rolled, ejecting Townsend. He was not wearing the lap belt or shoulder strap in his car. "I'm just as guilty as anybody else," says Jim Townsend, Jonathan's father. "I go in, sometimes I don't buckle. And the kids learn from that. If you don't do those things on a consistent basis, they think it's not important." Jonathan's death was the sixth in 18 months. Teachers at Princeton High School say that many of the students are numb. Some have attended most - or all - of the funerals. "Basically, I've been to hell and back," says Tayler's sister Shantelle Otto, who was friends with many of the victims. Some of the students felt they were jinxed or that there was a black cloud over the school. Teachers try to explain that's not the case. "We don't have a black cloud here," says teacher Sue VanHooser. "There are consequences to actions and we all have to think about all those actions all the time." Princeton is certainly not alone. Anywhere from 60 to 90 teens die each year on Minnesota roads. There are many factors: inattentive driving, driving at night and not wearing seatbelts are just a few. Experts say one of the biggest problems is having too many kids in the car at once. "They're engaged in conversations that are often accompanied with music, they're laughing, they're very social and they need to be focused on driving," says Cheri Marti with Minnesota's Office of Traffic Safety. Statistics from the Journal of American Medical Association show when a 16-year-old driver adds just one passenger, the risk of death increases by 39 percent. If you add two passengers, the risk goes up by 86 percent. If you add three passengers, the risk of death jumps by 282 percent. It's why most states - at least 39 of them - limit the number of passengers that can be in a car with a newly licensed driver. But not Minnesota. "We clearly would save a lot of lives if we'd have stricter laws for young drivers," says state Sen. John Marty, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would add the following limits: - For the first six months, newly licensed drivers (under the age of 18) could have no passengers under the age of 20, except for immediate family. - For the second six months, no more than three passengers under 20. "We're not penalizing these young people," Marty says. "We're just saying we're gonna put some simple restrictions on you until you get more experience as a driver." Wisconsin passed a similar measure in 2000. In the three years that followed, 16-year-old drovers were 15 percent less likely to be in a traffic crash. In the three years before 2000, 88 16-year-old drivers died. In the three years after, 72 died. Despite those stats, some Minnesota lawmakers oppose the restrictions. "I think it could potentially be a huge inconvenience," says Sen. David Tomassoni. He feels the law would be tough to enforce and cause headaches for families that rely on young drivers. "I think that ultimately we need to be able to trust people to do things that are right in regards to their kids and regards to their families," Tomassoni says. The proposed restrictions passed the Senate this year, but the House did not have time to take up the measure. It could be voted on next year. Parents of the students who died in Princeton don't know if such restrictions would've saved their kids, but they say such changes wouldn't hurt. In fact, Shawn Swanson put similar restrictions on Victoria when she got her license. "From our loss, we hope maybe we can save somebody from losing their children," Swanson says. More than anything, these parents hope people listen to their stories because no kid should have attend a friend's funeral. "We shouldn't be burying our kids. They should be burying us," Karen Cichy says. "If anybody gets anything out of it, I hope parents sit down with their teenagers, whether they want to or not, and ask them if they actually understand what a privilege it is," Cichy says. "We are the ones that need to educate our children that you have to follow the law," Karla Otto says. "There's a reason why there are laws. And it's so we don't lose our children." The 18-year-old driver in Tayler's case pleaded guilty to three charges and served a few months in jail. The 17-year-old driver in JoBeth's was convicted of careless driving. The State Patrol is still investigating the July 3rd crash that killed Brian, Jordain and Victoria. Witnesses confirm the car did not yield at the stop sign. We may never know why. Jordain's and Victoria's parents say they don't blame Brian for what happened. "I believe their accident was an accident," Shawn Swanson says.

By Joe Fryer, KARE 11 News

(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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