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Distracted Driving Killing More American Teens

Police Capt. Thomas Didone's 15-year-old son died in a distracted driving crash.

Police Capt. Thomas Didone's 15-year-old son died in a distracted driving crash.

Car accidents are number one killer of teenagers in US

Car accidents are the number one killer of teenagers in the United States.

Government data show that every year over 4,000 teens lose their lives in collisions that are caused mostly by "distracted drivng" - a term that includes everything from having too many noisy passengers, to using a cell phone while driving.

Now, a new bill introduced in the U.S. Congress seeks to reduce this disturbing trend.

Forever 15

Ryan Didone was a typical, fun-loving teenager. He liked sports, riding his dirt bike and spending time with his friends and family.

But all that changed in a matter of minutes in the fall of 2008. Ryan and four of his friends were riding in a car when
the driver lost control and hit a tree.

Ryan Didone, age 15

Ryan Didone, age 15

The impact was so severe it caused major injuries to all the car's occupants. Ryan was flown to a nearby hospital, where he died a short time later. He was 15 years old.

Grieving father

Capt. Thomas Didone has been with the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department for almost 25 years. He is Ryan's father.

"I was with my son the day he was born and I, unfortunately, had to be with my son in the hospital on the day he died. And that's something that I would never wish on any parent."

The irony of this tragic story is that Didone spent many years of his life teaching teenagers and their families about safe driving.

That his own son would one day lose his life in a car accident is something the police captain has had a hard time grappling with.

"I thought because I'd been working on teen safety for over 10 years and advocating that parents had to do more to make sure their kids were safe, to communicate with their kids to make sure their kids understood the situation, that it would never happen to me," he says.

The aftermath of the accident that killed 15-year-old Ryan Didone.

The aftermath of the accident that killed 15-year-old Ryan Didone.

Distracted driving nightmare

Didone says the crash that took his son's life was a direct result of distracted driving.

"It was an inexperienced, immature driver who felt that he was invincible; driving at night with a car load of kids. He was distracted, he was going too fast, and it ended up causing one death and serious trauma and tragedy for the rest of the community."

Ryan's story is all too familiar. According to government estimates, of the more than 30,000 U.S. highway deaths reported in 2008, about 12 percent involved drivers between the ages of 15 and 20. Most of those fatalities were the result of distracted driving.

Jim Jennings, a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance Company, says the number one cause of distracted-driving accidents is cell phones.

"If you're texting while driving, you are 23 times more likely to get into an accident than somebody who isn't," he says. "Reaching for a cell phone when it's going off, you're nine times more likely to get into an accident than normally driving."

Jennings says talking on the phone and reaching for a cell phone "is akin to having four beers and driving."

'An epidemic'

Ray LaHood, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says distracted driving is a critical problem.

"I've called it an epidemic in America because just about every American, including many teens, own cell phones and they think they can talk and drive and do it safely, and they can't," he says.

To counteract this disturbing trend, government agencies and private companies are using public service announcements and safety events to raise awareness.

At a recent driving event near Washington, D.C., teenage drivers tested their driving skills on a closely-monitored obstacle course comparing how they drove with - and without - distraction.

Orange cones on the track represented curves in the road. And testers threw large, inflatable dolls - representing children - in front of the cars at random mements to test the driver's reaction time.

Kevin Schumann, 19, tests his driving skills - with and without distractions - on an obstacle course in Washington, DC.

Kevin Schumann, 19, tests his driving skills - with and without distractions - on an obstacle course in Washington, DC.

Sobering experience

Kevin Schumann, 19, was one of the drivers. First, he drove without a cell phone, and was able to easily navigate around the cones and dolls.

But then he was given a cell phone and asked to start texting.

Almost immediately, his driving pattern started to change. Kevin drove erratically, knocked down several cones, and ran over at least one of the inflatable dolls.

Kevin found the experience to be eye-opening.

"With talking on the phone you at least are able to keep your eyes on the road, but [with] texting you have to take your eyes off the road and that makes you lose sight of anything," he says.

Knocking down the cones and hitting the makeshift kids said Kevin, "really opened up the experience for me to prove how bad it is to text and drive."

Debbie Pickford, another Allstate representative present at the event, says there are a number of reasons why teens in particular are at risk.

"What we know from research on teen brain development, is that teens don't really have fully developed brains until they're 25 years old," she says.

When you combine immature brain development and inexperience she says, "you get a much, much higher risk."


But things are starting to change.

New legislation that's been introduced in the U.S. Congress would require all states to implement what's called a "Graduated Driver Licensing" (GDL) system.

Under such a program, young drivers are prohibited from nighttime driving, are limited to the number of passengers they can have in their cars at one time and will be ineligible for a full driver's license until they're 18 years old.

The program is designed to give teens a chance to build up their driving experience slowly, and over a longer period of time.

Ryan's memorial marker at his high school

Ryan's memorial marker at his high school

The legislation creating the new teen licensing program is now pending in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In the meantime, people like Capt. Didone are using their personal experiences to help educate teens and their families about the dangers of distracted driving. He travels the country, sharing his story with the hope that it may save other lives.

"I never thought I'd be one of those parents that got that phone call, but I was. So I recognize the fact that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone."