At the sound of the bell, hundreds of Payson High School students jump into cars filled with friends. They may not know it, but as soon as a third passenger climbs into a car driven by a teenage driver, the risk of fatal injury nearly triples.
This frightening fact comes from a Johns Hopkins University study that found the risk of fatal injury increases with each additional passenger a 16- or 17-year-old driver carries.
Just after 3 p.m. Monday afternoon, three cars driven by teenagers were involved in an accident on W. Wade Lane next to the high school. In this case, three students were transported to the hospital with only minor injuries. Payson police determined the cause of the accident was driver distraction.
Payson High School Assistant Principal Tim Fruth was watching as paramedics treated his students. He said it was a sobering sight.
"I went home and lectured my teen driver on this," Fruth said. "Too many of our kids are getting distracted when they're leaving school, whether it's for lunch or after school. As administrators, it's something we worry about every day -- kids getting home safely."
Fruth said it was only natural for teenagers to be distracted, so parents must be diligent and involved.
"Teenagers have a lot of things going on in their lives. They leave school thinking about work, homework, boyfriends -- everything but driving. As parents, we need to remind our students every day to pay attention and focus on their driving. Even if they don't want to listen or they've heard it a hundred times. It only takes a small, one-second distraction, like looking at a friend."
One way parents can help their students is by enrolling them in the high school's driver education class.
"We have drivers ed classes that we offer during the year. We offered it in the summer and as a zero hour class during the school year. One of the advantages of drivers ed is that -- with the drivers ed certificate -- the teenager doesn't have to take the driving part of the test at the MVD. That's a huge advantage."
Fruth said he is grateful that Monday's accident didn't turn out like the recent fatal accident outside Dobson High School in the Valley.
"I'm always surprised that we don't have more driving incidents than we do because there are more kids on cell phones."
Fruth made sure his teenage daughter took the drivers ed class.
"I liked the class," said 16-year-old Caitlin Fruth. "I thought it helped me learn what to be prepared for and how to drive in different kinds of weather. We watched some corny movies, but they taught us how to deal with traffic, what to do in different situations and how to handle an emergency."
During the class, Caitlin said they talked a lot about driver distractions.
"They told us what to do in the car, and what not to do, like cell phones and makeup. We saw drunk-driving videos that showed us all these paralyzed people ... and what could happen to us if we drink and drive."
Cydney Demodica, spokesperson for the Arizona motor vehicle division offers this advice to parents, "The key to safe driving is practice, practice, practice. If parents want one hint, that hint is -- parents, get out and drive with your kids.
"Teens can liken it to how they play video games. Were they good at it the first time? No. It took practice. The only difference is that in a video game, when they mess up, nobody gets hurt. But when you're in a car, if you make even a small error, it can be deadly."
Demodica said Arizona has a graduated drivers license law with specific penalties and consequences for drivers under the age of 18.
"The law is designed to help teens develop safe driving habits," Demodica said.
For information about the PHS drivers education classes, call the guidance office at (928) 472-5725.
For more information about the Arizona's graduated driver license law log onto: www.azdot.gov/mvd/driver/driverservices.asp.