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Program targets teenage offenders

Ventura County law enforcement officials rely on help from the community to report reckless behavior by youthful drivers.

January 08, 2003|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

It was December 2001, three days after Christmas, that the community of Thousand Oaks mourned the deaths of two teenagers killed in a horrifying car accident. Kenneth Marshall Glass and Jordan Bass, both 16, became the fifth and sixth teenagers to die that year in car crashes in the Thousand Oaks area.

The fatal car accidents sent a chill through the community. Parents and law enforcement officers said too many children had been lost. They thought something had to be done to prevent such senseless accidents, says Senior Deputy Vince Camou of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. Teens and their parents needed a "wake-up call," he says.

So Ventura County and police in Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Oak Park in May launched the Sheriff's Teen Traffic Offender Program. STTOP, fashioned after a similar program offered by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, is designed to encourage the community to report dangerous driving by teenagers.

So far, an estimated 100 callers have used Ventura County's toll-free number, reporting the license plates of vehicles driven by teenagers who allegedly were "speeding, clowning around, weaving in and out of lanes wildly, cutting people off or squealing tires," Camou says.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among U.S. teenagers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Inexperienced teens driving at high speeds in a 4,000-pound car can be a deadly combination, police say. "We are battling the fact that they feel invincible. Unfortunately, teens don't have the life experience to realize they are not," Camou says.

The accident that killed Glass and Bass happened at 1 a.m. when their station wagon spun out of control and slammed into a wall, police said. The vehicle reportedly was traveling 106 mph when Glass, the driver, lost control, police said.

Glass, who had a provisional license under the state's graduated driver's license law, was prohibited from driving with passengers under the age of 20 unless accompanied by a licensed driver 25 or older, police say. He also was forbidden from driving between midnight and 5 a.m.

When Camou receives reports from the hotline about teenage drivers, he contacts the owners of the vehicles -- usually parents -- and sets up a face-to-face meeting with the parents and the teenager to discuss dangerous driving. "Naturally, the kids are a little apprehensive at first," Camou says.

He makes it clear that he's not there to give the kids a citation. "I'm there to try to prevent them from getting hurt or hurting someone else. I tell them it only takes a moment of messing around to cause a bad accident."

Camou also briefs the teenagers on driving laws and what the consequences are should they be in an accident or cited. Young drivers with a graduated license who get traffic tickets or have an accident while driving with a provisional license can lose their license for six months or have strict limits imposed on when they can drive.

If a teen driver is convicted of using alcohol or a controlled substance, his or her license can be suspended for one year. Driving privileges also can be delayed, suspended or revoked if teens are convicted of habitual truancy from school, vandalism or offenses involving firearms.

Finally, until a child is 18, parents have the right to request that the Department of Motor Vehicles cancel their youngster's license for reckless driving. Camou says he has yet to encounter a parent who has objected to being contacted by police regarding their teen's risky driving habits.

"They are thankful we are making this effort to try and prevent their son or daughter from getting hurt," he says. "Most of these kids have just gotten their license and their hands on a car."

Camou says he hasn't had to make a repeat visit to a teen suspected of driving recklessly.

In fact, statistics for 2002 indicate there were no teenage-related driving fatalities in the area, according to Thousand Oaks police Sgt. Patti Salas. There were, however, 41 injury collisions involving drivers under the age of 18 who were at fault.

*

Jeanne Wright responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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