Permanent Recess

Teenagers are the worst drivers on the road. So why do schools encourage them to speed recklessly at lunchtime?

Teenagers are notoriously bad drivers. One out of every three teen drivers will be involved in a collision in the first year after obtaining driver's licenses, and many will die, according to national traffic safety statistics. So many, in fact, that auto accidents are the number-one killer of teenagers in America.

And yet, each day around noon, teenagers stream out of high schools, jump into cars, and head for fast-food joints in a dangerous race to return before the lunchtime bell.

In 2001, more than 150,000 collisions involving teen drivers occurred in the United States during lunchtime hours, the National Traffic Safety Administration tells New Times. Of those, nearly 21,000 teens were injured. And 139 were killed.

Bryan Anderson thinks often about his decision to get into the back seat of a car for a lunchtime fast-food run.
Jackie Mercandetti
Bryan Anderson thinks often about his decision to get into the back seat of a car for a lunchtime fast-food run.
The high school athlete two months before his accident.
The high school athlete two months before his accident.

What adds to the risks of lunchtime escapes, studies show, is the tendency for teens to pile into cars in large numbers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, teen drivers are so easily distracted that when a single additional passenger is present, the risk of a fatal accident doubles. Add three passengers, and the risk of a lethal crash is five times higher than if the teen were driving alone.

In the Valley, the death toll has included at least six students over the past seven years.

In 1996, a lunchtime accident left a Highland High School senior dead. A Chaparral High sophomore riding as a passenger was killed in 1998. In the past two years, separate lunchtime collisions took the lives of two students from Mountain View High School.

In their wakes, those deaths have left behind a predictable pattern of school policies enacted to address them: Districts and schools affected by lunchtime fatalities have tended to adopt strict closed-campus rules, and others have not.

But even in those schools that have reacted to deaths by enacting tough rules preventing students from leaving, the "closed" campus is often a misnomer. Teens who want to leave badly enough can, and do.

Some school administrators interviewed for this story say that they're well aware of that fact, and they also acknowledge that schools should be doing a better job keeping kids from making unauthorized campus escapes.

But recent court cases suggest that schools have little to motivate themselves to do a better job. Because of Arizona state law, schools that let down on their duty to keep kids from escaping face no penalty when they do. Shielded from legal liability, Arizona high schools have little incentive to improve their lunchtime offerings or beef up lax security measures that teens consider a joke.

With the keys to a new silver Ford Mustang in their possession, the four high school boys weren't about to settle for cafeteria food.

The four were freshmen and sophomores, and weren't supposed to leave the Horizon High School campus in Scottsdale. But they did anyway, waving goodbye to a security guard whose job it was to stop them.

After a dash to a gas station and a friend's house, they headed to a string of fast-food restaurants that line the roads near the school. The boys were in a hurry. By the time they got to Thunderbird Road, the Mustang was a gray blur.

Scott Reigelsperger, the 16-year-old driver, made a sharp left turn onto Thunderbird Road. The car whipped around so fast that one of the boys sitting in the back seat, 15-year-old Bryan Anderson, hit his head on the side window.

Still the car speeded up. Within two blocks, the Mustang had accelerated to about 65 mph.

"Hey, man, slow down," Bryan remembers saying as he struggled to put on his seatbelt. He looked up and saw a van turning left in front of them.

Bryan was still holding the seat belt in his hand when the Mustang made a heart-stopping skid and crashed into the van. The impact threw Bryan forward, slamming his shoulder into the driver's seat and smashing his head against the dome light on the roof of the car.

Slumped over, with blood dripping down the side of his head, Bryan tried to push himself back against the seat. His entire body shuddered and then grew numb.

"At first, I thought I had broken my shoulder," Bryan says. "But I kind of came to and I was like, Wait a minute, I can't feel my body. Something's wrong here.'"

Still conscious, Bryan remained slumped across the back seat of the car. He could hear his friends yelling for him to get out, that the car was going to explode, but Bryan lay there, helpless, the panic growing. He couldn't feel anything. He couldn't move.

Bryan's accident more than seven years ago left him a quadriplegic. He was never supposed to leave campus, but a lax security force allowed it to happen. His parents blamed the school for the accident and sued the Paradise Valley Unified School District, but the suit was thrown out.

The courts ruled that it was not the school's responsibility to keep Bryan from leaving campus. Horizon and the district were not held liable for the accident because, according to the ruling, "the school did not cause the injury to the plaintiff."

That decision has been reinforced by other court rulings, which have concluded it is not the duty of schools to protect drivers from teens who leave campus during lunch. Furthermore, the courts have said, schools that fail to have or enforce closed-campus policies do not violate their duty to protect students.

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