Special Report: Dying to Drive - East Valley Tribune: Dyingtodrive

Special Report: Dying to Drive

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Posted: Sunday, May 7, 2006 6:00 am | Updated: 2:02 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Published May 7-9, 2006 in the Tribune newspapers

When teenagers die, chances are it is a car crash that kills them. Motor vehicle accidents account for nearly half of all deaths among children aged 15 through 17. Yet Arizona is one of the few states that do not put any limits on when these young teens can drive or how many kids they can carry in their cars. In a three-part series, the Tribune examined the issues surrounding teenagers driving through a single accident in which two children died.

Krystal Ebel struggled to breathe, trapped in the back seat of the crushed Volkswagen. Seconds earlier, the 15-year-old had been laughing with four friends who had piled into the car after a lunchtime pizza party to head back to Dobson High School in Mesa.

Part 2: Road to deadly paradox

Part 3: The politics of public safety

But then a slight turn of the wheel sent them careening over the median and into oncoming traffic. In the span of a few heartbeats, Krystal was fighting to stay alive. So was Shayna Linneen, the 16-year-old driver who was pushed down against the floorboard under the steering wheel.

Krystal was frantic at first as she tried to crawl through the opening of the shattered back window. Beside her, one boy was dazed and covered with blood. The boy on the other side had managed to climb out of the wreckage. Without his shoulder to prop her up, Krystal had slumped slightly to the right.

The only sound was the steady drone of the car’s stuck horn.

“There wasn’t a scratch on her face,” says Kathie Raley, a passer-by who rushed to the wreckage. “I can remember her hair looked like silk and her face was just flawless.” But Krystal was afraid and in pain.

“My back,” she screamed hysterically as Raley climbed over the fender and took the frightened girl’s hand. “My back hurts.”

Raley asked her name, shouting to be heard over the horn.

“Krystal,” the girl moaned, then repeated, “my back.”

“Krystal, look at me,” Raley shouted. As she looked up, Krystal’s eyes locked with Raley’s. Since the day of the accident, Raley has struggled to describe what she saw in Krystal’s eyes. She has not come up with the right words.

“They were the most unbelievable brown eyes,” Raley says. “There was just something about it I can’t explain. There’s no word for it. It was a light.” In that instant, Krystal became completely calm.

“I’m sorry,” Krystal said. “It’s OK,” Raley replied. “You don’t have to be sorry.” Help was on the way, Raley told Krystal, urging her to be still. “I can’t breathe,” Krystal said. Her voice sounded strong at first. Thinking Krystal was hyperventilating out of fear and shock, Raley urged her to relax and try to breathe normally. “I can’t breathe,” Krystal repeated, her voice weaker this time. The sound of sirens was building in the background, growing stronger against the steady wail of the car’s horn. “I can’t breathe.” This time Krystal lipped the words, but no sound came.

Firetrucks were pulling up now. Rescue crews jumped off and grabbed their equipment.

“They’re here,” Raley said.

Krystal’s eyes closed. Her hand tightened lightly, then slipped from Raley’s as her body slumped slowly over onto the seat.

Just shy of 16, Krystal was dead.

Krystal Ebel was the 1,077th person to die in a car crash in Arizona in 2004, the last year for which complete records are available. By that evening, Shayna Linneen became the 1,078th when she died at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix.

In 2004, 80 people in Arizona died in crashes involving a young teenage driver, statistically the most dangerous on the road. More than half of those who died — 48 — were under 18 themselves.

In all, 1,151 people were killed in car crashes in the state that year, including 116 children.

Every year, traffic accidents kill more kids of driving age than anything else, accounting for about 45 percent of all deaths in that age group both nationally and in Arizona.

Crashes kill more children of that age than murders, suicides and diseases combined, according to statistics of the top 20 causes of death kept by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Behind those numbers are children like Krystal and Shayna, two kids who stayed out of trouble, excelled at what they did and died because of a tiny mistake on the road.

Yet despite the risk associated with teen drivers, particularly 16-year-olds, Arizona is one of five states that do not impose special restrictions when they get their licenses. Year after year, state lawmakers have refused to seriously consider restrictions on teenage drivers despite evidence that restrictions save lives.

Driving curfews and limits on passengers have cut crashes and deaths involving young drivers in other states, virtually every study on the impact of those laws has found. Though the magnitude of those reductions varies from state to state and from study to study, most put the figure at roughly 20 percent to 25 percent.

This year, two bills were introduced in the Arizona Legislature to restrict new teenage drivers. Neither bill got a hearing, and both failed.

The chief argument of opponents is that setting limits on teenage drivers is the parents’ job, not the government’s.

And as each year passes, there is a new crop of parents like Denny and Donna Ebel who have had to bury their children after a car crash.

“Krystal, in our lives, will always be almost 16,” Denny Ebel says of his daughter, an exceptionally bright girl who was set to graduate from high school two years early. “She’ll always be on this pedestal. She died at that time in her life and all we knew is from that time back. We never got to see the rest of her life.”

Deadly drivers

The crash at Alma School Road and Summit Place in Chandler that killed Shayna and Krystal is one of 68 fatal accidents in Arizona that year involving a driver younger than 18, according to a Tribune analysis of a state database containing every crash in 2004.

There is ample evidence in the Arizona database and in national figures that these drivers pose a disproportionate risk on the road. While 16- and 17-year-olds account for about 1.5 percent of the licensed drivers in Arizona, they represent about 5 percent of the drivers involved in crashes. About 7 percent of all fatal crashes in Arizona involve at least one driver who is younger than 18.

Young drivers are most apt to get into a crash in the hours before and after school. The fourhour span between 2 and 6 p.m. is when about 38 percent of their crashes occur, state records show.

The pattern for fatal accidents is less clear. About 37 percent of fatal accidents involving at least one driver younger than 18 occur between noon and 6 p.m. Another 37 percent happen between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., when the risks are statistically the highest.

Records in the Arizona database do not assign blame because of the complexities of tracking citations and criminal charges through the courts. However, in about two-thirds of the cases, the young teenage driver is listed as the one who most likely triggered the accident.

National studies show 16-yearold drivers are more than 10 times more likely to be involved in a crash than adult drivers.

The risk subsides after the first year of driving, suggesting that teen drivers become safer as they gain more experience behind the wheel, according to an extensive study of teen driving patterns done by the California Department of Transportation in 2004.

Separate research by the National Safety Council shows that, on average, one in five 16-year-olds will be involved in an accident in their first year of driving, and they are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than 18- and 19-year-old drivers.

In terms of fatal accidents, the most lethal drivers are males between 16 and 20 years old, the age block used for young drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Male drivers in that age group are almost three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than the driving population as a whole.

Young females are about 30 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than the national average of all drivers.

Aside from killing kids, car crashes also are the leading cause of brain and spinal cord injuries and injuries requiring hospitalization for children aged 15 through 17, CDC figures show.

The emotional scars run even deeper.

To the strangers, the police and paramedics, the doctors and nurses, and especially to the parents, watching a child die after a car crash is a horror no one should have to endure.

“This girl has touched me in so many ways and I never knew her,” Raley says of Krystal.

“It’s one of those days I would never, ever wish on anyone. But I wouldn’t get rid of that day. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Fragile lives

Krystal had already seen how quickly life could end in a car crash. Four months before the accident that took her own life, Krystal had passed by a fatal crash at Guadalupe and Extension roads in Mesa. Ryan Wendt, 20, a passenger in a car driven by 16-year-old Randy Duda, died at the scene, according to police reports. Krystal had seen Wendt lying in the road, encased in a body bag, says her mother. That night, Krystal expressed frustration and puzzlement at how fragile life is.

“How can they put someone in a body bag right away, when they’re so young?” Krystal had asked her mother. “I just don’t understand how someone can die so quickly.”

The irony is something that sticks with Donna Ebel.

“Here I am a couple of months later, looking at this blue tarp over my daughter,” she says now. “It’s so surreal. If it can happen to Krystal, it can happen to anyone.”

But thoughts of dying seemed far from Krystal’s mind when she called her mom about 10:30 on the morning of Dec. 9. Anna Shipley, 17, was having a birthday, and her friends at Dobson were throwing her a party at Peter Piper Pizza in Chandler, a couple of miles from the high school. Krystal wanted to leave class early to help set up decorations.

After talking to Krystal’s teacher, Donna agreed.

“Be careful,” Donna said to Krystal. “Oh, mom,” Krystal replied. “Don’t worry.”

That was the last conversation Donna Ebel had with her youngest child. Krystal and Shayna had known each other since the seventh grade, when they played on the same soccer team, their parents say. They had become close in a wide circle of friends. Though a year apart in age, they were both juniors at Dobson. Krystal had skipped the first grade and was so far ahead in her classes that she would be graduating at the end of the school year. She planned to go to Northern Arizona University and eventually become a doctor working in Third World countries.

Shayna was “kind-hearted almost to a fault,” says her mother, Becky.

Adds Shayna’s father, Pat: “She just attracted people. She’d see a derelict at 7-Eleven and give him all her money because she felt bad about the way they were living. She was just real giving.”

The Linneens took driving seriously, and so did Shayna, they say. They spent hours driving with her after she got her learner’s permit. They even took the extra step of sending her through a private driving school in Tempe. They bought her the Volkswagen because they had been told by friends who are firefighters that it was one of the safest cars on the road.

The pizza party ended a little after 11:30, and the kids headed toward the parking lot. Lunch hour would be over soon, and they needed to get back to class.

As each one piled into Shayna’s blue VW Beetle, their odds of dying shot up dramatically.

Dangerous additions

There are things that young drivers do that heighten their risk of getting killed in a crash. Carrying other teens as passengers, especially a lot of them, is among the riskiest, according to a study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Young passengers distract young drivers and may goad them into risky behaviors, the researchers said. Overall, the risk of a 16-year-old driver being killed in a car crash increases about 39 percent when carrying one young passenger. The risk of being killed nearly triples when young drivers carry three or more young passengers. The risks are even greater when the passengers are boys.

The Arizona database shows that of the 71 drivers younger than 18 who were involved in a fatal crash, only 28 had no passengers.

Of the 80 people who died in those crashes, 28 were the young drivers themselves and another 27 were their passengers, according to the state database. The rest were either in other vehicles or were pedestrians.

Those results are similar to a national study done by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released earlier this year. AAA studied 10 years of fatal crash data and found that of the nearly 31,000 people killed in crashes involving a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old driver, 36 percent were the drivers themselves, and 32 percent were their passengers.

With three young passengers already packed in her car, Shayna’s odds of dying in a crash had more than doubled by the time Krystal wanted in. Rather than leave Krystal stranded, the kids scooted tighter and made room for one more.

Krystal sat on the hump of the back seat, wedged between Tyler Spurbeck, 18, and Robbie Brecht, 17, both of Chandler. Since that spot was not designed for a passenger, there was no seat belt for Krystal. Because it was Anna’s birthday, she got the front seat.

By all accounts, Shayna was not breaking any laws as she headed north on Alma School Road. She was not speeding, tailgating or making unsafe lane changes, witnesses told police. She was wearing her seat belt and had no alcohol or drugs in her system.

Aside from being 16, the other things Shayna had going against her were that she had numerous passengers, and two of them were males. But that is not against the law in Arizona.

Shayna was driving in the lane closest to the median and stopped at the light on Summit Place. A Baja Bug driven by Alfred Galaviz Jr. of Chandler was idling to her right. The kids in Shayna’s car were being loud, but just acting like normal teenagers, Galaviz later told police. When the light turned green, Galaviz pulled ahead.

Tyler told Shayna to pass the Bug, according to the police report. That is the type of subtle prodding that researchers say makes boys such dangerous passengers.

Just across Summit, Galaviz merged left in front of Shayna. Accounts vary as to whether Galaviz cut her off. He said there was a car length between their vehicles when he changed lanes. A witness behind the cars said he would have clipped Shayna’s bumper if she had not swerved.

Galaviz was cited for making an unsafe lane change, which was sustained in Chandler city court.

Regardless of how close the cars came to touching, Shayna pulled the steering wheel abruptly to the left to avoid a collision.

Just a few inches too far. That’s all it took.

The Volkswagen slammed into the raised median, jumped over the curb and smashed through a street sign. It hit the stump of a palm tree that had been knocked down in a crash less than a month earlier. That sent the car airborne and in a roll toward the driver’s side.

The right front tire hit a second palm tree in the median, which caused the car to pivot clockwise as it swung into the lanes of oncoming traffic. A Salvation Army delivery truck traveling south on Alma School smashed into the side and roof of the Volkswagen, bouncing it to the ground and onto the driver’s side.

As the car skidded back toward the intersection, one of the wheels gouged into the pavement, and it flipped back into the upright position.

When the car finally came to a stop, the five people inside were a jumbled mass of broken bodies.

Six of Krystal’s ribs were broken. One punctured her heart, Donna Ebel says.

Robbie was the only one to walk away from the crash on his own. Tyler was fighting for breath beside Krystal in the back seat. In the front, Shayna was wedged under the steering wheel, which had been pushed back to within a few inches of the seat. Anna was slumped across the seat.

“It’s a series of events that if you had a bunch of stunt men and tried to set something like that up, you probably couldn’t execute it,” Pat Linneen says. “Bad timing. Bad conditions. Everything.”

Denny Ebel, Krystal’s father, has a similar assessment.

“Everything that could go wrong in one instant did,” he says.

Minor mistakes

Even when young drivers are doing everything right, they can still be dangerous because of their inexperience and immaturity, according to national statistics and studies. Inexperienced drivers simply do not have enough time behind the wheel to instantly react in a situation they cannot get out of, says Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, chief of general pediatrics at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and a national board member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Weiss was the lead author in revising the academy’s policy statement on teen drivers, which recommended limits on night driving and carrying passengers.

Young drivers are not as good at seeing dangers developing ahead of them, Weiss says.

While they have quick physical reaction times, studies have shown they tend to take longer to make even simple decisions while driving, things like changing the station on the radio, he says.

“A lot of crashes are really not due to reckless driving and they are not due to bad teenagers,” Weiss says. “They’re due to kids who are trying to drive safely, but they just can’t because they can’t see everything all at once. Like any new skill, it’s hard to learn.”

The immaturity of young drivers often leads them to risky behaviors like speeding, tailgating and weaving between lanes, according to the academy’s policy statement. Their inexperience makes them ill-prepared to get themselves out of dangerous situations they might not have encountered before.

“They are not recognizing the hazards, and then of course they don’t know how to react to the hazards,” says officer Lisa Taylor, an accident investigator with the Chandler Police Department. “There is just a delay. They tend to drive a little more reckless and then they are not prepared with how to react if things don’t go well.

“Part of the problem is they don’t recognize the danger in driving. They think they are invincible, so they just drive a little bit beyond their means.”

Taylor investigated the crash that killed Shayna and Krystal, but said she could not discuss the specifics of that case.

Speeding, weaving across lanes, following too close, not wearing seat belts and not paying attention to their surroundings are common problems with young teen drivers, Taylor says. When they have other kids in the car, the problems are compounded, she says.

“Their attention is drawn to the other passengers,” she says. “They are just not concentrating on the road. And with passengers goes peer pressure. They are trying to impress their friends.”

The most dangerous behavior for any driver is using drugs or alcohol before driving. Intoxication is listed as a factor in about a third of all traffic deaths, both nationally and in Arizona, federal statistics from 2004 show.

While young teens are statistically less likely to drink alcohol and drive than adults, those kids who drink and drive are in a disproportionate number of crashes that result in death or severe injury, according to the California Department of Transportation study.

When kids are drinking and driving, it is most likely at night and with other teenagers.

Among 15- and 17-year-old drivers killed in car crashes, 17 percent were intoxicated, federal highway administration figures show.

Of the 16-year-old drivers, the rate was slightly lower — about 13 percent.

All states, including Arizona, have zero-tolerance laws that require a teenager’s license be revoked if they are caught driving with any alcohol in their system.

Young teens also are less likely than older drivers to wear seat belts, especially when they are carrying young passengers, according to a series of studies on adolescent driving behavior.

'Utter devastation'

The first thing that Mesa Fire Department paramedics Jeff Lasher and Paul Liddell saw when they got to the crash on Alma School was the Salvation Army truck, which did not seem to be too badly damaged. It seemed like just another fender-bender. Fire units from Chandler, Mesa and Tempe all responded to the crash.

“It was going to be like every other call we go on until we literally got past that white truck and we saw just the utter devastation to the car,” Lasher says. “We don’t see a whole lot of car wrecks of that magnitude. That hits you pretty quick and pretty hard.”

As other fire crews began cutting the kids out of the Volkswagen, Lasher and Liddell set up an emergency treatment area. Shayna would be their patient.

They didn’t know that a girl had already died in the back seat.

It was clear that Shayna was teetering near death as soon as her limp body was dragged from the wreckage. Her breathing was sporadic. She had blood in her mouth. There was no way of knowing how badly she was broken up inside. As the seconds ticked by, the paramedics did what they could to stabilize Shayna so she could be loaded onto a helicopter and flown to the trauma room at Maricopa Medical Center.

“It’s difficult for any of the accidents we go on,” Liddell says. “But I think children have a lot more of an impact because you think of where they are at in their lives, how much they have to live for, the things that they are not going to ever be able to experience.”

Denny Ebel got the call about Krystal at 1:05 p.m. It came from Donna’s sister, who had been told by her daughter, Krystal’s cousin, that there had been a fatal car crash and that the girl who had been killed might be Krystal.

Denny Ebel called Donna and broke what news he had, which at the time was not much.

“I knew Krystal was dead,” Donna Ebel says as she describes traveling toward the crash. “I just felt like something died inside of me. I didn’t know how I could live without her.”

Pat and Becky Linneen were working at their Mesa business when they got a call from their oldest son, Nick, then a senior at Dobson.

Nick told his mother that he believed Shayna had been in an accident, but wasn’t sure. Some of his friends had passed the scene and said the car looked like hers.

The first thing Becky Linneen did was call the school, but she got no answers there.

When she called back a few minutes later, she was told a security officer was looking for their phone number. The school receptionist would not say why.

Rather than wait for answers, they began driving toward the school. They couldn’t get close enough to the scene to see the crash. They didn’t even know who had been in the car.

Finally a police officer told the Linneens that Shayna was being flown to Maricopa Medical Center. Becky Linneen says the officer told her that rescue crews did not even see Shayna when they first arrived because the car was smashed in around her.

Driving toward the hospital, Becky and Nick were getting updates by phone. First they heard that someone had died in the crash. Then they were told it was Krystal.

“We knew Krystal was gone,” Becky Linneen says. “But we also knew that if Shayna would have lived, she would have been devastated. She would have never been the same.”

At first there was hope, Becky Linneen says. Doctors said initially that they had inserted a breathing tube, that there was some bleeding and they needed to find out what was causing it.

But the hours kept passing.

Inside the operating room, five surgeons were frantically working to keep Shayna alive, fighting to fix her massive internal injuries.

“Her insides were just torn up,” Becky Linneen says.

Dr. Marc Matthews, director of the trauma unit at Maricopa Medical, vividly remembers the day they brought Shayna in. It is a day that sticks with the doctors and nurses who see busted-up kids come through the trauma room every day.

No matter how grown up they may seem in the outside world, few teenagers can hide their fears when they are wheeled into the trauma center after a serious car crash, Matthews says.

Many are crying. Many ask for their parents. Some are hysterical.

“There’s a lot of shock when kids come in here,” Matthews says. “Not only have they been out on the street, ejected on the pavement and knocked unconscious, now they are waking up in a helicopter and are flying in here. The overwhelming fact of the pain, the clothes cut off, the shock and even to a mild degree the terror involved here in these young people, it jostles their emotions.

“In the blink of an eye, a split second, they can become a level-one trauma.”

Maricopa Medical is one of five level-one trauma centers in the Valley, which means they are rated to handle the most critical medical emergencies. In the one-year period ending June 30, 400 children hurt in motor vehicle crashes were treated in the trauma center at Maricopa Medical. Fifteen of them died.

Watching kids die never gets easier, Matthews says. Neither does telling parents that nothing more can be done to save their child.

Making that decision is the toughest part of the job, he says.

“You realize that you are the only one standing in the doorway between here and there, that when you decide to step out of the doorway that person is going to walk right through it and cross over,” Matthews says.

It was a decision the doctors had to make with Shayna. In the end, they had to step aside.

One of the surgeons came out to tell the Linneens. They remember he had a sick look on his face.

He told them “it’s not going to work,” Becky Linneen says, recalling that moment. There was too much bleeding, too much internal damage.

Shayna’s family was led back into the room where she was lying. A heart monitor was still hooked up. A doctor had his hand in the girl’s chest, massaging her heart, which kept the blips registering on the machine.

“What I remember most is walking up and she just had all of this blood that was just standing,” Becky Linneen says. “She was just laying in blood. And really, it felt like you are in a dream, like you are just watching this. It really doesn’t feel like you.”

The doctor stopped pumping Shayna’s heart, and slid his hand out of her chest.

The blips on the monitor stopped.

She was dead.

Connected by death

No one whose life was touched by the deaths of Krystal or Shayna that day will forget it — not the passers-by, the police, the paramedics, the doctors or the nurses. For Jeff Lasher, the Mesa paramedic, the moment that hit hard was when he saw Shayna’s picture in the newspaper and on television after the accident.

During the call, she was just an extremely critical 16-year-old girl he was trying to save. Seeing her picture later, as she was before the crash, is what made her Shayna, Lasher says.

“I now associate a real healthy, vibrant girl with that car wreck,” Lasher says. “That’s where you realize that this wasn’t a super critically injured girl for her whole life. Circumstances happened to her and in a matter of seconds she went from what I know into that super critically injured girl. To me, it’s a huge waste that you see this girl that just moments before was Shayna.”

After the crash, the Ebels led an effort to prevent kids from leaving Mesa high schools during lunch. Now every high school in the Mesa Unified School District prohibits sophomores and juniors from leaving during lunch. Seniors are still allowed to leave, except at Skyline High School, where no students are allowed off campus at lunch. Mesa high schools do not have freshmen.

The other high schools in the East Valley have similar policies.

The Linneens have become active in the Child Crisis Center, and help coordinate an annual fundraising event for the organization held in December.

Both families also have become part of an ever-growing circle of grieving parents who have had to bury children in the Mesa City Cemetery. Many of them have died in car crashes. The survivors cope the best they can.

“Shayna wouldn’t want me and Pat crying,” Becky Linneen says. “She’d want us happy because that’s the way she was.”

For the Ebels, the holidays are the toughest.

For Pat Linneen, there is no rhyme or reason as to when the grief hits.

“Some days it’s just real vivid,” he says. “You get up and you’re just sick. And the next day you shake it off a little bit. You go and then it pops up again.

“Sometimes I take the liberty to just go and think about it.”

But he adds that it’s tough to let go of his emotions completely.

“I don’t know if I can ever come back,” he says. “You might end up just staying there and you might not survive.”

what’s ahead?

TODAY: The problem: Car crashes kill more teenagers than murders, suicides and diseases combined.

MONDAY: The evidence: Limits on teenage drivers are saving lives in 45 states. Arizona is not among them.

TUESDAY: The solutions: Arizona lawmakers have little interest in restricting young drivers.

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