Police meet with teens to work for fewer fatal crashes

Sunday, March 16, 2003

OAKVILLE, Mo. -- Car crashes resulting in eight teenage deaths in south St. Louis County in the past year and a half led police to hold an in-school meeting last week to talk about ways to reduce fatalities.

At Oakville Senior High School, students, police, crash survivors and school administrators discussed ways to keep teenage drivers safe, while protecting others on the road from teens driving recklessly, sometimes jumping hills or drag racing.

"It's hard to see police officers become physically ill. It's hard to see police officers cry, but I've seen that all in dealing with these fatal accidents," said Major Tim Fitch, commander for the county's patrol division. He oversees 529 officers, several of whom have responded to the deadly crashes involving teenagers.

Certainly, fatal accidents involving young drivers occur throughout the city and the surrounding area, but south St. Louis County has been particularly hard hit in recent months.

Police don't have an easy answer for why that may be. "It could be because of places they see to drag race or due to the availability of cars," Fitch said.

The meeting, held during school hours, went on behind closed doors because police were concerned that the dialogue could change with the media present. But several participants, representing five school districts, talked openly afterward about what they'd like to see happen.

Brendan Smith, 17, a senior at Hancock Place High School said he takes part in supervised drag racing at an area race track. He said it's a great way for teens to drive at fast speeds in a controlled environment and to learn about why they shouldn't speed on other roads.

He said, too, that many students he knows commit minor traffic violations before having an accident. He said he thinks teens need to be held responsible for the cars and the consequences of their driving. "I wrecked my truck," he said. "I called my parents to notify them right away." Smith said they made him pay costs of the crash, and he thought that was important.

Five members from the Miano family from the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield survived a Nov. 15 accident with a teen driver. Two teenagers in the other car died. Family members said that prompted them to get involved in the issue.

"The best solution is immediate action, cracking down on the laws we already have," said Cyndi Miano, who still undergoes physical therapy as she recovers from several broken bones and whose husband, Ron, relies on a cane to walk since their vehicle was struck.

They suggested officials monitor how students drive near school grounds and forbid students from parking on school property for a time if they're seen driving recklessly. They also asked that parents keep their kids out of sports cars in their first few years of driving, as they've heard from kids who said it could encourage driving at high speeds.

Fitch said the St. Louis County police will train about 30 school resource officers to teach an already-existing driving safety program called Arrive Alive.

And, he said, he thinks a dialogue about improving driving and reducing fatalities will continue.

The victims include:

Megan Landholt, 17, a senior at Mehlville High School, who died Feb. 10 as she was returning home from a library in a Nissan Altima and collided head-on with a Chevrolet Camaro. Fitch said two other vehicles with teenage drivers were drag racing. One of those drivers, and two of his passengers, suffered injuries. No one has been charged, and a final report on the crash should be completed within a few weeks.

Patrick Limmer, 15, who lost control Jan. 19 while jumping hills. Police said he was not a licensed driver. Two passengers suffered minor injuries.

Ryan Devine and Greg Formhals, both 16-year-old students at Lindbergh High School, died Nov. 15, 2002, when Formhals lost control of his Mitsubishi Eclipse in wet conditions. Their car struck a sport utility vehicle carrying the Mianos.

Jonathan Hearst and Kevin Houska, both 19 and Mehlville High School graduates, were killed July 30, 2002, when the car they were passengers in hit a guardrail. Police said the driver, 20-year-old Brandon Ostendorf, was drag racing before losing control. He was indicted on two counts of vehicular manslaughter.

Michael Fendler and Jordan Feager, both 19 and former Mehlville School District students, died Sept. 26, 2001, in a hill-jumping accident. Two passengers were injured.

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