Celebrating a Life, Learning from Tragedy

As our annual rite of spring, Mount Desert Island buried another teenage victim of a car crash this past Memorial Day. This island, the site of the picturesque Acadia National Park, receives over three million visitors during the summer months, but our year-round population is only a little over 10,000. For most of the last few years we have still managed to bury at least one teenager a year, usually in the spring. For my family, this year's funeral was especially traumatic. Clint was my younger son's closest friend. We regarded him as virtually a member of our family. The driver of the car, another close friend, though badly hurt, called my son from the scene of the accident to tell him that Clint was dead.

Speed, failure to wear seatbelts, lack of good judgment, were all involved, but the funeral was appropriately a celebration of a life well lived. Over a thousand island residents attended his funeral. A well-liked young man with an infectious sense of humor, a skilled athlete loyal to his friends, one who challenged his teammates to get the most out of themselves, had left us. The minister asked us to show our love for Clint. He reminded Clint's peers that love is not a sentiment, it is expressed in actions: "Putting on the father's cap, if you leave here tonight and you say you love Clint, but you don't buckle up, you don't love him."

The advice is well taken, but at least one question remains: What are adults to do? I cannot claim any final wisdom on this topic, but I would like to pose tentative comments in the hopes of eliciting further dialogue.

I am one of a small minority who hope that the obsession with the private auto as our principal means of transportation will someday be regarded as a form of collective insanity. Jane Holtz Kay's classic work, Asphalt Nation, has amply demonstrated the irrationality of our auto dependent system. Even if cars were energy efficient and environmentally benign they would take inordinate numbers of lives and require immense amounts of our time and labor to provide relatively inefficient transportation. Worse still, as Kay points out, the auto demands of us on a daily basis intense concentration and enacts terrible penalties on those who fail its tests. But short of radical changes in our modes of transportation, what proximate reforms can we make at least to slow the carnage?

Perhaps licenses should not be granted until age seventeen or even eighteen. Though biology is not destiny, it does set a context. Some neurologists point out that the amygdala, the prefrontal source of "gut level" pain that provides a context for the more "cerebral" core of the brain, is not fully developed in many teenagers. This research has helped explain a phenomenon parents and educators have long noticed in most youngsters and early teenagers, a sense of immortality and an inability to acknowledge distant risks.

Yet if teenagers cause disproportionate numbers of accidents, so do drivers of any age who have become physically impaired through age, injury, or illness. More regular and thorough assessment of driving skills should be instituted to save lives on highways.

Driver training should be longer and should include more training in defensive driving. As one parent with extensive experience in both our schools and community service organizations says of our current 30-hour requirements for a license: "I don't feel driving around the island and to Bangor with his mother is enough to send him out with a license to face a variety of weather conditions, other drivers who might do anything unexpected and so on. A full semester course has to be tried for a couple of years."

These suggestions are worthy of further debate, but they neglect the role of adults. Recently licensed teenage drivers in Maine are no longer allowed to carry other teenage passengers. Yet from the point of view of many teens, there is a tad bit of hypocrisy in such regulations. On the day of Clint's funeral, CNN released a survey of adult drivers. The survey, based on self-reports, indicated that 70% of adult drivers often speed, and 15% even read while driving a car. As working days are stretched by the adult business world and forced overtime becomes an accepted business practice, time becomes the scarcest commodity of all. Speed assumes the role of personal survival strategy even as it imposes escalating risks on us all.

Perhaps experienced adult drivers are better able to avoid the disastrous consequences of such behaviors, but many still die. Just as importantly, they set examples for teenagers. Worse still, esteemed corporate executives market the auto through ads emphasizing speed and reckless daring in sleek vehicles. Small print disclaimers that these "are professional drivers on closed tracks" may satisfy the legal department. Nonetheless, if you weren't born with eyes as sharp as Ted Williams', you won't even notice them.

Part of auto related tragedy is that the car has become too many things in our culture -- a symbol to boys of manhood, a ticket to jobs and the adult world, an adult free zone. Adults can drink, even to excess, without legal consequence as long as they don't go out and kill someone on the roads. Teenagers in this society, unlike some European nations, do not have these rights.

Teenagers are of course notorious for disregarding our warnings. But school leaders, parents, and governments that exaggerate risks, or micromanage lives, or treat all differences in younger generation life styles as inherently threatening, lose credibility and legitimacy. They can foster mindless rebellion and they surely do not prepare teenagers for the responsibility they must display in operating vehicles on our roads.

We assume teens are capable of operating monstrous machines of mass destruction, yet we regulate the minutiae of their lives in ways that adults would never tolerate. Perhaps there are good answers to these apparent contradictions, but none of the teens to whom I have spoken see them.

In any case, I know one thing. I was never more moved by a funeral, but I am tired of such spectacles. I hope we can find other occasions to celebrate the many-splendored contributions of our youth.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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