Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers ages 15-19, who are killed at a rate of more than six per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those numbers are not OK with Natalie Bacho, who is raising awareness locally of the acute problem of distracted young drivers during National Teen Driver Safety Week.
“Every year, it is the No. 1 killer of this age group, and that is not changing,” Bacho said. “Those are not numbers, they are lives, and we need those lives. Something has to give.”
A drastic 2015 uptick of fatalities on Georgia roadways – a number that has risen each year since – has been partly attributed to distracted driving.
But distracted driving doesn’t just claim the lives of teenagers – it puts everyone on the road at risk of serious injury and death. And all too often it turns young drivers into killers, a situation with which Bacho is painfully familiar.
On Dec. 22, 2012, 18-year-old Taylor Long ran a red light at the intersection of Newnan Crossing Bypass and Lower Fayetteville Road, plowing into the Bacho family’s van. Bacho’s husband, Stephen, and three young daughters were injured in the wreck.
Daughter Abby, 9, was critically injured and passed away on Christmas Day while Stephen Bacho remained in a medically induced coma for another month.
“It will be affecting our family every day for the rest of our lives,” Bacho said. “Abby should be a freshman in high school this year, learning to drive. She had that taken from her by a teen driver.”
Just last week, 18-year-old Jackson Hill Ridgeway was charged with vehicular homicide, reckless driving and two counts of serious injury by vehicle, according to Coweta County Jail documents, for his role in a fatal crash on March 7 of this year.
Ridgeway, who police say was speeding, attempted to pass a vehicle in a no-passing zone and hit a third vehicle head-on, killing 24-year-old Karyn Stephens and injuring two other occupants of the car.
The effect of vehicular deaths is devastating, and not just on the families of those who are hurt and killed.
“We don’t want another driver to have to live the rest of their life with the regret of taking another life or causing another injury,” Bacho said. “It has a ripple effect on schools, communities, churches, friends and family. It doesn’t just stop with those in the car.”
The most effective way of getting the message through to young drivers is putting it in the hands of teenagers themselves, according to Bacho. In assemblies at local schools during last year’s Teen Driver Safety Week, Bacho shared the microphone with Cody Landry, who was convicted of a hit-and-run death in February of 2015.
Landry, who was 17 at the time, struck and killed 13-year-old Parker Madliak as the younger teen was walking home along Welcome-to-Sargent Road. Landry said he believed he’d hit a deer. As a condition of his probation, the teen was ordered to speak about his experiences and the dangers of texting and driving.
But Bacho said the message can’t wait for tragedy to strike again.
“We’re not going to just be reactive any more,” she said. “We’re going to be as proactive as possible. Abby’s classmates will be driving soon, and for us, that’s a full-circle moment. They have lived it as her friends and now they have the power to help us stop this, to help keep it from happening again, and that’s what we want to encourage them to do.”
The Abby’s Angels Foundation – founded to honor Abby’s memory – has partnered with clubs and organizations from East Coweta, Newnan and Northgate high schools for National Teen Driver Safety Week. From dress-up days to T-shirts and bracelets emblazoned with #1Life1Choice to sticky notes, safe driving pledges and goody bags reminding young drivers to buckle up and put down their phones, Coweta high school students have been launching their own creative campaigns designed to discourage distracted driving among their peers this week.
“We’ve given them the seed and let them run with it,” Bacho said. “Their voices and their ideas can be so much more impactful than us. They really do have some great, creative, very mature ways to express themselves.”
One student-generated safe driving pledge included angel wings and was printed on paper in Abby’s favorite color, hot pink.
“She would be their age group right now – they’re the age she should be,” Bacho said. “To know that they’ve connected with her in that way just really means a lot.”
(Coming Friday: What young drivers and their parents can do to keep teens safe on the roads.)