Columbia County shows teenagers driving dangers

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Traffic crashes are the number one cause of death among children and young adults.

Numbers from the National Safety Council show more than 3800 young drivers are killed every year in traffic crashes.

In a special assignment, News 12's Stephanie Baker investigates why the numbers are so high, and what Columbia County is doing to try and lower them.

The radio, cell phones, eating on the go, and even putting on make-up.

Drivers of any age can be distracted, and experts say it's especially true for teens.

So Juvenile Court in Columbia County is using real life examples to show teens the deadly consequences.

A warning: some of what you're about to read may be disturbing.

911 Emergency, July 2003:
Driver: "Oh my God!!"
Operator: "911 emergency"
Witness: "It's caught on fire, it's caught on fire!! Oh! It caught fire!!

Three teenagers, one deadly accident. And a memory that lingers on William Few Parkway.

911 Emergency, July 2003:
Witness: "There's two unconscious people in the car.
Operator: "How old are they?
Witness: Are they children?"
Driver: "16...and I think 17."
Witness: "16 and 17-year-old children in the car, burning, s&*t, they're burning, oh my God."
The July 2003 crash killed Keith Kroggman and Brad Thornton after driver Jennifer McElmurry lost control of her car. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, so Juvenile Court probation officer Kari Poss doesn't hesitate to take learner's permits and licenses away. About fifty sit in her drawer right now.

"Their car is a weapon, driving is a privilege, not a right, and we can take it away at any time," Poss says.

The fear of losing the privilege alone doesn't seem to be working...but seeing the worst that can happen might.

Almost a quarter of Georgia’s traffic deaths are teenagers like these Columbia County children. Soon, kids who wind up in traffic court will hear the stories of their peers who didn't make it...and from others like Donny Thigpen who survived, but will never be the same.

"It takes a few seconds to lose something, but a whole lot to get it back," Thigpen says. A drunk driving crash ten years ago left him a paraplegic.

But will coming face to face with the evidence work? Family psychologist Dr. Joe Holt says maybe.

"They're not going to think about that any more than we did at that age."

He says the brain isn't fully developed until around age 22. And during adolescent years, new hormones can make it harder for kids to connect consequences to their actions.

"Their inexperience tells them...we're fine, nothing will happen," Dr. Holt says.

Don Brock has spent three decades teaching teens to drive, and he agrees with Dr. Holt.

"They don't have a lot of experience, and they make a lot of bad decisions,” says Brock.

His student, 16-year-old John Schurtleff, just started driving. He's in a high-risk category...sixteen-year-olds are more likely than any age to die in a crash. The risk increases when friends are in the car. "It makes you more cautious ‘cause you just don't want it to happen to you,” Schurtleff says.

After hearing about the William Few tragedy, Schurtleff says he plans to slow down and pay closer attention to the road.

According to the accident report, the 16-year-old driver was going too fast, and lost control around the curve in the road.

The vehicle hit a pine tree.

911 Emergency, July 2003:
Witness: "Who is in the car?"
Driver: "Brad and Keith."
Operator: "Okay, there's two people in the vehicle then."
Witness: "There's two young children trapped in the car that's burning. There's nothing we can do, there's nothing we can do!! We need a fire department. Come on up with me before that car blows up."
Officers say McElmurray just got her license several days before the crash.

"Their lives were taken for no reason at all,” says Poss.

That's why Poss won't show any leniency to teenagers who break the law.

"It's not worth it, ‘cause you'll lose more than you're ever going to gain,” she says.

That's something Donny Thigpen knows well. He is alive to tell his story...and to warn others of what may happen.

911 Emergency, July 2003:
Witness: "These children are getting burned and there's nothing we can do."
Driver: "Oh my God!" (screams)
Witness: "I wish we could have gotten them out in time, sweetie."
Driver: "We couldn't was screaming)
Operator: "Mam, can the men not get out of the car?"
Witness: "They're burned up, they're dead. They're dead!!! They're in the car burned up."
Jennifer McElmrray was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. That case is now closed. Kari Poss says the best thing parents can do is pay attention to where their kids are going. Her first seminar for youth offenders was this past Saturday.

Officers say the driver broke the law by driving with two other teenagers.

There are some serious restrictions for teen drivers already in both Georgia and South Carolina. There are curfews for drivers under 18, and both have restrictions on who can be in the car.

For a complete breakdown of the teen driver laws, visit the following links:

South Carolina laws:
Georgia laws: