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Colorado wants to boost teen drivers education

Separate crashes claim lives of two 15-year-old boys

By J. Sebastian Sinisi
Denver Post

PARKER – Two traffic accidents that claimed the lives of two 15-year- olds two days apart have focused fresh attention on teen traffic fatalities.

The accidents killed two students, both boys, from Ponderosa and Chaparral high schools. They also triggered calls for better driver education for teens, who remain the most at-risk driving group.

"We obviously need better driver education to give teens more real-world scenarios in avoiding accidents," Parker police Investigations Capt. Ron Combs said.

In the most recent accident, four teens were in a Saab convertible when the driver lost control going north on Crowfoot Valley Road, just south of Stroh Road, about 11 p.m. Monday.

The car went off the road and rolled end over end, ejecting the two rear passengers. One of them, a 15-year-old boy whose name was not disclosed by Parker police, was killed. The three other teens in the car were also injured, but their conditions were not available.

In an accident Saturday, Brian Clifford, also 15, was pronounced dead after the sedan he rode in was struck by an 18-wheeler as the car attempted a left turn from Parker Road onto Mainstreet.

The truck broadsided the car, whose driver, 17-year-old Nicole Clifford, was airlifted to Swedish Medical Center, where she remained in intensive care, Parker town spokeswoman Kena Peterson said.

"Both deaths occurred during the first days of spring break, and there's an immense amount of sadness in the district," said Douglas County Schools spokesman Bruce Caughey. Spring break runs until Monday for Douglas County schools.

"People are shaking their heads and hoping that teens will take more responsibility for driving safely," he added.

In Saturday's crash, witnesses told police the traffic light was either yellow or red when both vehicles entered the intersection.

With the Monday rollover still under investigation, Combs wouldn't comment on whether excessive speed was a contributor.

A state "graduated driver licensing" law that went into effect in mid-1999 placed a number of limits on 16-year-old drivers, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Mairi Nelson.

The result, she said, is that traffic fatalities with 16-year-olds at the wheel were down 45 percent from 1998 to 2000. A CDOT study also showed that the rate of fatal crashes per 100,000 16-year-old drivers was cut by more than half - from 46 to 22 per 100,000.

"But despite the impact of that law," she added, "we found in 2000 that 16-year-old drivers were still four times as likely to be involved in a crash as the average of all Colorado drivers."

More than 70 percent of Parker voters in November approved donating 2.8 acres of town open space for use as a teen driver-safety facility.

Depending on funding, however, the facility that will cost nearly $300,000 may not be operational until spring 2005, said Cheryl Poage, spokeswoman for the Parker Fire Protection District, which is coordinating the project.

"Communities need to take driver education much more seriously than they do now," she said, "and putting driver education back in the schools would be a big step."

Driver education, while available from private firms, has not been offered by any large school district in the state for many years, said Caughey.

"Kids can take courses from for-profit firms, but they don't get the behind-the-wheel experience," Poage said. "... We teach kids motor skills for sports at an early age. But we don't teach driving skills until they're 15 - and that lack of experience is what kills them."