RALEIGH — The Department of Transportation tracks all kinds of accident statistics. Several projects focus specifically on teenagers. One reasearch effort shows teens are most likely to crash during three different times of the day: the hour before school, the hour after school, and lunchtime.
They fly through intersections, blow through stop signs, swerve in and out of traffic, and pack their cars way beyond capacity. They are high school students out to lunch, just having fun, most with little concern about the consequences of their dangerous driving.
"Everyone is pretty much in a rush to get off campus," says teen Carol Symons.
"I'm just trying to get where I need to go so I can eat fast and get back," says Antoine Eason.
Student Josh Van Deusen acknowledges, "There are a lot of accidents."
One of the worst: 10 Plymouth High School students were killed during a lunch run four years ago. The teenage driver lost control and skidded into the path of a tractor trailer.
A wreath still marks the intersection where a Leesville High School student was killed and two others injured while heading back to school after lunch.
Britney Luongo is one of eight Athens High students injured in a lunchtime accident two months ago, when one car loaded with students rear-ended another.
"All I can remember is just seeing the big back of whatever kind of car it was just coming at us, and knowing we were going to hit," Luongo says.
"I didn't even realize I was hurt or anything," she says. "Then I looked down, and I was really burnt up."
The statistics are eye-opening. Research shows one out of every four teenage drivers will be involved in a crash. Forty percent of this will be injured our killed. In fact, more teens die in car crashes than from anything else.
And consider this: every passenger added to a car increases a young driver's risk of crashing. Add one passenger and the risk of a deadly accident doubles. Add three passengers and the fatal crash risk is five times higher than driving alone.
Yet, when WRAL's Five On Your Side investigated, they saw car after car after car crammed with kids. Some were on the laps of front seat passengers, two students actually squeezed themselves into the back window of a two-seater sports car.
Add to that the dangerous teen tendency to show off while driving, and the distractions of listening to music, talking on cell phones, smoking, eating and drinking while they drive.
Sgt. R.E. Hawley heads a Sheriff's patrol division that focuses on traffic problems around schools in Wake County.
"They're not paying attention to anything that's going on around them because there is so much going on inside the confines of the car," Hawley says.
During one lunch hour, resident complaints have Hawley's officers monitoring 3-way stops in a neighborhood near Leesville High School. Within minutes, WRAL witnesses one car after another running right through a stop sign. Many drivers stop only after they realize they are caught.
Hawley has seen a lot of lunch time accidents. Most are "fender benders," though he fears another bad wreck is right around the corner.
"It's just a matter of time," he says. "It's not if it's going to happen. It's when."
Luonga agrees, and says her accident experience has changed her outlook.
She says she is a lot more careful about who she gets in a car with.
"I'll say, 'I'm not going to ride with you if you don't drive better,'" she says. But she realizes most of her peers are not concerned about driving dangerously, and do not even consider that speeding, running stop signs, tailgaiting, just acting crazy like so many young drivers do, could kill them.
"Youth have no concept of tomorrow," Hawley says. "They figure it's coming. They just don't know that it might come without them."
A lot of parents feel the answer is to keep students on campus for lunch, but school leaders say they simply cannot accomodate all the students without drastically revamping schedules. Johnston and Cumberland County Schools do not allow students to leave for lunch, though.
What should parents do? Limit the number of passengers in a teen's car and clearly relay your expectations about driving responsible.
You can find more information about teen drivers and how parents can help in our