Fatal teen crashes turns focus to license laws, driver safety

Five area teens have been killed in car accidents in the last four months and Ohio State Highway Patrol statistics show teens are at a high risk being involved in a fatal crash.

Statistics show 59 drivers and 32 passengers ages 16 to 20 across Ohio have died this year in vehicle crashes, according to OSP. The numbers are down slightly from last year, but overall the number of people killed in car crashes in Clark County are up this year.

Locally, five teens were killed in crashes in the last four months.

“When you are driving, it is a big responsibility,” Ohio State Highway Patrol Springfield Post Commander Lt. Brian Aller said.

There are many reasons why teens are more likely to get in an accident than other drivers, Aller said, but the main reason is some teens don’t understand just how dangerous driving can be.

“When you are driving, you are responsible for yourself, the passenger and the people on the roadway,” Aller said. “The operation of a vehicle mandates so much control and has a lot of factors; lane placement, speed, and we have to concentrate on them.”

The tragic deaths of the local teenagers have prompted officials to question license laws and family members of two victims to begin publicly speaking about teen driver safety at local schools.

Teen deaths

Three crashes have killed four local students in the last four months. Each crash involved a teen driver.

MORE: Greenon community grieves for 2 athletes killed in crash

David Waag, a 17-year-old Greenon senior, and Connor Williams, a 15-year-old Global Impact STEM Academy sophomore, were killed in August when a car they were passengers in went off Wilkerson Road in Greene County and hit a tree. Trey Blevins was driving the car, according to OSP.

Blevins was charged Monday with two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide in the second degree and aggravated vehicular homicide in the third degree along with a misdemeanor count of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Lt. Matt Schmenk, commander of the Ohio State Highway Patrol Xenia Post, said Blevins had marijuana in his system at the time of the crash.

Waag and Williams were not wearing their seat belts.

In October, Greenon Junior Kenny DePhillip, 16, was killed when a car he was a passenger in went off the roadway and crashed into a pole.

Graham sophomore Sara Hess, 15, was killed in November when a car she was a passenger in was allegedly hit from behind causing the teen driver to lose control and crash. Gabe Weir, the 17-year-old driver, was injured but was expected to make a full recovery.

This crash remains under investigation.

Austin Elson, 19, was the fifth recent death. He was killed in Logan County when a Volkswagon he was driving went left of center on Nov. 29 and struck a guardrail on County Road 153 near Township Road 145 in Jefferson Twp.

The deaths of so many young people over a short span of time has caused a lot of hurt in the community. There have been candlelight vigils, memorials, public funerals and lots of tears.

“When any young person loses their life, it is very heartbreaking for everyone,” Clark County Sheriff Deb Burchett said. “Their parents, their friends. It’s heartbreaking for us.”

READ: Sara Hess of Graham High School remembered at funeral

Some family members impacted by these tragedies are turning their heartbreak into action and working to raise awareness of the importance of buckling up and driving safely.

Spreading a message

David Wagg’s mother, Aryn Waag, was watching a video on social media when she saw three of her son’s friends in a moving car without their seat belts on.

“I kept telling them over and over and over again since David’s accident: ‘Wear your seat belts,’” Aryn Waag said. “I snapped chatted the person, then I text the person and I wasn’t very nice but I said I love you. And I said I can’t stop it right there and leave it at just one person.”

Aryn Waag made a public post on Facebook about the importance of seat belts and how she might still have her son if he was wearing one on the day of the crash.

Now, with Connor Williams’ sister, Devin Williams, the two have begun speaking at high schools urging kids to buckle up and be safe on the roadways.

“It wasn’t that long ago that I was in high school and you sit through the presentations about not drinking and driving and you sit through the seat belt lectures with cops and teachers but it has more meaning coming from someone who has experienced it,” Devin William, 23, said. “I am not just a grownup lecturing them, I am someone who has been through it. We know the actual consequences.”

The two first spoke at Fairborn High School. Aryn Waag shows blown up pictures of the car the boys were in and what it looked like following the crash. The car is destroyed and emergency officials had to cut the roof off to reach the boys after the Aug. 20 accident.

“I want to ensure and let people know that I am involved and that their children are being safe and are wearing their seat belts,” Aryn Waag said. “It’s my number one priority.”

Aryn Waag was at Kenton Ridge High School Dec. 1 where she, the Clark County Sherrif’s Office and the Clark County Combined Health District checked for seat belt usage before the students pulled away for the weekend.

Aryn Waag said David was outgoing and loved meeting new people. Devin Williams, said the boys were similar.

“He loved football, he loved wrestling around and he just liked to have fun,” she said of Connor. “He was always with his friends.”

After the boys’ deaths, the community showed a lot of support to the families, they said.

“It was overwhelming, and it is still overwhelming but in the best way,” Aryn Waag said. “To feel so loved and to feel so supported. As much as our families were grieving they were too.”

Devin Williams also felt the support.

“To go to places in Enon and the surrounding areas and seeing pictures of the boys and seeing how far the love has gone, it’s powerful,” she said.

Teen Driver Safety

Lawmakers need to look into teen driver laws and think about extending their permit time to a year before teens are allowed to get their licenses, Sheriff Burchett said.

She shared her thoughts on teen driving after DePhillip was killed on Oct. 15 when a car he was riding in crashed into a pole near Fowler and Rebert Pike Sunday afternoon. Ohio gets four seasons, she said, and teens need to know how to navigate each one before being allowed on the road on their own. An Ohio House bill was proposed in June requesting that change, but no action has been taken on it.

MORE: Ohio considering major changes for teen drivers

The message was well received by many including Clark County parent Cathy McConehea. Her 16-year-old daughter has decided to not get her license until she is 18 due to the deaths of her classmates at Greenon, McConehea said. The state needs to do more to make sure kids are prepared to be on the road when they get their licenses, she said.

“Teenagers think they are invincible and they think it won’t happen to them,” McConehea said. “They think it is a joy thing and they don’t realize all the dangers of it.”

Dangers are all around teen drivers, especially when there are distractions, Aller and Burchett said.

“Anything that distracts a driver from driving needs to be put away,” Aller said. “A radio, eating, drinking, smoking; all those can distract driving.”

Another issue is kids having too many other kids in the car with them, Burchett said. Currently, Ohio law calls for only one kid to be in the car with a teen driver, however, Burchett said she believes that law is consistently broken by teen drivers and is overall tough to enforce. Having too many kids in the car can have deadly consequences, she said.

“They are only supposed to have one in it,” Burchett said. “But kids are kids, they’ll put as many kids in the car as they possibly can. And that causes a big problem.”

A change in the permit law would be welcomed by driving school professional Linda Schetter. Schetter, the owner of Springfield’s School of Driving LLC, has worked in the business for almost 10 years and says driving instructors want to do everything possible to make sure students are ready for when they are driving on their own.

“Our main thing is to teach them defensive driving,” Schetter said. “When they are driving they need to worry about not just the car in front of them or beside them. They need to be aware of everything.”

One of the toughest challenges she faces are parents who want to rush their kid onto the road, she said. Too often, parents want their kid to get their licenses quickly so the teen can drive themselves to school or practice.

Her advice to parents and student drivers is to take the time to make sure the kid is ready for their license before letting them get it.

“All the parents are not like that but there is too large of a percentage of parents who are not involved,” she said.

While the driving schools will work as hard as possible to prepare students for the road, the state requires 50 hours of driving with parents before the teen is allowed to take the driving test. During this time, parents need to be sure they are teaching good driving habits to ensure their teen will be safe on the road, she said.

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