The site of an accident in Hancock County that killed Eastern Hancock High School student Riley Settergren in July 2017. Staff photo by Tom Russo
By the numbers
After decreasing steadily over a decade, the number of fatal car accidents involving driver ages 15 to 20 increased by 9 percent between 2014 and 2015, national statistics show. Here’s a look at the number of deadly crashes involving young drivers in recent years:
HANCOCK COUNTY — After years of steady decline, the number of fatal car accidents involving young drivers is increasing nationwide, and research shows those deadly wrecks occur more often in the summer months.
As the county continues to mourn the loss of two teens killed in recent crashes, local police and driving instructors are hoping their messages of carefulness and caution hit home for families. They’re reminding young drivers — and their parents — that attentiveness is essential to everyone on the road is safe.
The statistics show 1,886 drivers ages 15 to 20 years old — including 52 in Indiana — were involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2015, the most recent data available. That’s up from about 1,723 the prior year.
Accidents in which a teen was killed had dropped significantly in the near-decade prior, experts said.
Teen-involved fatal crashes were at their highest in 2006 with 3,490 deadly wrecks, though they steadily dropped to 1,696 by 2013. An uptick followed in 2014 and again in 2015, data show.
That nationwide trend has local public safety leaders speaking out.
Two of the eight fatal car accidents the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department has handled so far this year have taken the lives of local teens. Police are asking all drivers to take extra care behind the wheel — now more than ever — in honor of those two young lives lost.
Sarah Overby of Greenfield and Riley Settergren of Wilkinson, both 17, died in crashes near the start and end of their summer vacations — a time period the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety calls the deadliest months for teens.
Overby, a Greenfield-Central High School junior, was a backseat passenger in a car that struck a utility pole in May near the intersection of State Road 9 and County Road 1000N in Hancock County. The 20-year-old driver missed a curve in the roadway. Overby was seated closest to the point of impact, and she was pronounced dead at the scene.
She was weeks away from graduating ahead of her class.
Settergen died in July when the pickup he was riding in with two friends collided with a piece of farm equipment at the intersection of county roads 900N and 750E. The driver of the equipment told investigators he hadn’t seen the pickup truck because of high corn stalks.
Settergen was days away from starting his senior year at Eastern Hancock High School.
The average number of fatal crashes involving teens spikes 15 percent in the summer months when compared to the rest of the year, according to the AAA Foundation, a nonprofit research institute that works to identify traffic safety problems.
It’s most likely because teen drivers are on the road more often during the summer months, experts said: with school ending or out of session, teens have more freedom to travel between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But police say that’s all the more reason to drive cautiously.
As a ranking member of the county’s Fatal Accident Crash Team, Hancock County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Campbell, who heads his department’s road patrol division, has a presence at almost every deadly wreck that occurs in the county.
Each one is tragic, he said; but the ones that take young lives always stick out in his mind.
Teens don’t tend to make any different or more dangerous mistakes when behind the wheel than their adult counterparts, Campbell said. Regardless of age, the crashes sheriff’s deputies investigate across the county most commonly occur when drivers are distracted or when they’re following too closely behind the car in front of them, he said.
Teens, however, are more likely to make those mistakes because they’re inexperienced, Campbell said; and that inexperience makes them about 4.5 times as likely as adults to be involved in an accident, he said.
Good driving skills are acquired over time, after years of practice, said Eric Robertson, who runs the Old National Road Driving Institute in Greenfield and sits on the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles Driver’s Education Advisory Board.
Robertson believes the state’s licensing requirements need to be stricter and call for more hours of behind-the-wheel practice before teens are allowed to hit the road on their own.
In addition to a 30-hour classroom course, Indiana requires everyone to have 56 hours of behind-the-wheel driver’s training before they are issued a license. But only six of those hours need to be spent practicing with a state-certified driving instructor, Robertson said; the remaining time is typically logged with a family member over the course of a year, tracked on a piece of paper that’s later turned in to the BMV.
That’s not enough, Robertson believes. No matter how hard instructors try, they can’t ensure teens are exposed to every driving situation they might face. He always reminds students and parents that practice is key to safe driving, he said.
Though 10 hours of driving practice must take place at night, the state makes no other mandate on when or where the practice must occur. That means, in some cases, the first time teens drive in the rain or snow, on a highway or interstate, they’re completely alone, Robertson said. There is no one in the passenger seat to help guide them through a tough situation, to remind them to slowdown, stay calm or pay close attention to the road around them, he said.
Campbell and Robertson agreed that parents need to set good examples for their kids by following safe-driving practices. They shouldn’t sugarcoat how dangerous driving can be, they say.
“It’s the most responsibility they’ve had in their lives,” Robertson said. “They can make one mistake, and that one mistake could be their last mistake.”