Excited teen girl; Photo by Cliff Parnell

On August 22, 2004, the last night of her life, 16-year-old Sarah Gillette hung out at a friend's house with two other kids and watched Gone With the Wind on DVD. After the movie ended, the teens got an instant message from another group of kids, asking them to go out for a late snack. And so shortly after midnight, Sarah — beautiful, long-haired Sarah who spoke French and German and dreamed of going to college in Europe — climbed into a borrowed SUV with an unlicensed 14-year-old girl behind the wheel.

That SUV, with eight teenagers inside, was soon speeding along a curving, wet, hilly road in the Seattle suburb of Bainbridge Island, Washington. The driver was "roofing" — the local term for cresting hills so fast that passengers' heads hit the car roof. Not long before Sarah was due home, the driver hit an estimated 80 miles an hour, flipped the car, and crashed into a patch of trees. Sarah was in the jump seat, buckled up on a friend's lap. That friend and several others were severely injured. Sarah died.

The driver (whose name has been withheld because of her age) began her freshman year of high school with a conviction for vehicular homicide; she was sentenced to serve up to 36 weeks in a juvenile rehab center, a prison-like facility. A second 14-year-old involved in the tragedy was sentenced to 20 days in juvenile detention; she had taken the car from her parents' garage and let her friend have a turn at the wheel.

A couple of months after the accident, Sarah's twin sister, Caiti, started skipping school. Her grief was hard enough to bear. But there was more to deal with: Factions had formed over who was to blame for the accident, causing tension in the school hallways. Since Caiti and Sarah were identical twins, occasionally a classmate would slip and call Caiti by her sister's name. "Life seems too difficult right now," says Caiti, a junior in high school. "Mostly I'm just lying in bed." But not in the basement room she shared with her sister — she can't go down there. In this crucial college preparation year, Caiti has seen her A's and B's turn into D's and F's. "I can't even describe how horrible it feels every day," Caiti says, "just to wake up."

Keeping a sharp eye on Caiti is her mother, Caroline Brooks, who has three younger children as well. Eleven-year-old Christopher still cries at bedtime each night. He told his mother he feels forgotten because he thinks everyone is so worried about Caiti's unrelenting depression. There's also a baby and a toddler, and Caroline frets about raising them in a home swamped by sadness. "I cry every day too," she says. "But as parents, we try to pick up the pieces, to hold it together for the kids, to help them see that there's some kind of new life for us that will be OK. Because when something like this happens, it devastates your whole family. The life we had just ended in an instant."

Why It Happens

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among American teenagers, and the numbers are going up. Part of the explanation for why kids are such dangerous drivers may lie in the teen brain itself: A 2004 study from the National Institute of Mental Health found that the part of the brain that moderates risk taking isn't fully formed in late adolescence.

For unlicensed teenagers, who haven't had the benefit of proper training, driving is an even riskier proposition. From 1998 to 2002, there were 2,452 fatal crashes involving unlicensed young drivers, according to a soon-to-be-published report by Christian L. Hanna, a program director for the federally funded Children's Safety Network in Marshfield, Wisconsin. "And this is only the tip of the iceberg," Hanna says. "These are just the kids who were involved in fatal crashes. It raises the question of how many young kids are out there driving without a license and at risk of being involved in a tragedy too."

Some of these unlicensed drivers are teenagers who were out drinking or had stolen a car; but many others are decent kids, hard workers at school, loving and loved at home. The accidents occur in all kinds of communities — rural, suburban, and urban. More than half involve only one car (as in Sarah Gillette's case), which suggests that lack of skill is a factor. Spare time also plays a part: Forty percent of all fatal accidents involving young, unlicensed drivers happen in the four months from May to August, when school is out.

Because of the technology that teenagers now have at their fingertips — cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging — even vigilant parents are hard-pressed to keep track of their children at all times. Some of these accidents happened after teenagers had used their personal phones and computers to gather friends together once parents were asleep. Caiti says she can go to someone's house where a few friends are hanging out, and "15 minutes later, it's a raging party" when word spreads by cell phone. Caiti points out that on the night her sister died, plans had changed in an instant.

Of course, young, unlicensed drivers have been sneaking off with the family car for generations, as many parents know from their own experience. Matt Haney, the chief of police in Bainbridge Island, where Sarah Gillette died, has heard parents joke about their youthful driving pranks. "We're our own worst enemies," he says. "As adults, we joke about risky things we did, and our kids think it's OK."

Sometimes, parents are simply careless; when spare keys are left hanging on a hook by the door, it's an appealing temptation. But some parents go further and actively encourage their unlicensed children to drive, says Judie Stone, who heads Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group that lobbies for highway safety laws. She talks about adults letting their 12-, 13-, or 14-year-olds back the car down the driveway or cruise around the neighborhood with a parent in the passenger seat. "Some moms and dads believe that if kids start on the path to driving early, they'll do better when they're legal," Stone says. "But kids' reaction time is not as good, and neither is their judgment. Backing down the driveway may not seem like a big deal by itself — except that it leads kids to believe they can drive. And they can't."

A Repeat Tragedy

The small town of Perry, Michigan, is a changed place in the wake of two fatal accidents — both with unlicensed teenagers behind the wheel — that happened within a year of each other. The first involved Joey Jones and Travis Edwards, 14-year-old boys who had been best friends since preschool. They were top students, football players who wore consecutive numbers on their jerseys; even their moms were good friends. Travis carried with him the keys to his older sister's car. He and his sister went to the same school, and she would drive him home. "He told me he had the keys so he could wait for her in the car when she was late or turn on the heat if it was cold," says his mother, Terry Edwards. "And I believed him."

On October 4, 2003, the day before Travis died, Terry learned that her son had been driving illegally. Her ex-husband, who lived nearby and had visitation with his kids every other weekend, had arrived to pick up Travis. Looking out her window, Terry saw them leaving in two separate cars — Travis was behind the wheel of his sister's Beretta. (Travis's father declined to comment.)

Terry says she had wanted to confront her son right away. But because her relationship with her ex-husband was strained, she decided to wait until Travis came home on Sunday night. But Travis never made it. He and Joey took the car for a ride on Saturday night, with Travis at the wheel. Travis drove the car into a field, landing in a wooded area 300 feet off the road. After daybreak, Travis and Joey were found by a hunter. Both boys were dead.

A joint funeral was held in the high school auditorium. According to all accounts, the boys' deaths hung heavily over their classmates. But less than a year later, two teenage girls, one of them a member of the same class, died when the car they were riding in — driven by an unlicensed 15-year-old friend also from the boys' class — hit a tree.

After that second tragedy, town leaders in Perry surveyed the high school student body to learn more about their driving habits. To the astonishment of teachers and parents, 49 percent of the students said they had driven at least once before they were licensed. That was higher than the proportion of students — 47 percent — who said they had drunk alcohol in the past year. "The numbers are amazing, but they're not going to be much different in any community in our country," says Steve Liestenfeltz, the principal of Perry High School. "Up to this point, among some parents in Perry, there's been an overall attitude that driving without a license is not a big deal."

Since the second accident, parents, teachers, and town leaders have been involved in an intensive effort to change teenagers' driving habits and other risky behaviors. "This is hard to attack," Liestenfeltz says, "because it's not just about driving. The problem is about parents talking honestly to their children, and it's about the decisions kids make. All those kids [who died] made a choice to get in those cars."

Left Behind

These terrible accidents have far-reaching consequences for the families involved. Eight months after Joey Jones died in Perry, his grandfather committed suicide. "We think Joey's death was a big part of that," says Joey's mom, Sandy Shauver. Travis Edwards had two teenage sisters. His older sister — the one whose car he was driving — was hospitalized for a mental breakdown shortly after the accident. Now 18, she changed high schools because the memories were too painful. Travis's younger sister, now 14, was also treated for emotional problems. Like her sister, she struggled with intense survivor guilt after Travis's death.

Although almost two years have passed, Travis's mother, Terry, says the tragedy keeps reverberating. For a while, she concentrated on trying to help her daughters deal with what had happened. Then she realized that she, too, was torn by guilt and grief. "It's devastating to lose my son," she says. "But to see one of my oldest friends [Joey's mother] lose her son at the hands of mine.... My own son was driving that car, and I have guilt for that."

The survivors are desperate to understand why these accidents happened and how they could have been prevented. "I thought I had done everything right," says Sandy Shauver. "Joey was busy with school and athletics. I'd had conversations with him about making smart decisions." A couple of years earlier, Joey's older brother had been caught driving before he was licensed. Sandy does admit that she let Joey drive around the neighborhood before he got his license, "but never without me, and it was just ten miles an hour," she says.

"Joey was not a risk taker. That really wasn't his thing," Sandy says. "He was so serious. He loved to build things — he even tried to fix my water heater. He knew he wanted to be a stockbroker; he was an officer of his class. If he could, I know he would put his arms around me and tell me how sorry he is, because that's just the way he was."

Teenagers Think It's No Big Deal

To find out how some teenagers feel about unlicensed driving, GH talked to a group of students at a high school in Missouri.

"It's a pretty easy choice, whether to walk two miles or drive two miles," says John,* who is 16 but started driving well before he got his learner's permit. John's parents officially opposed his underage driving but chose not to make it a high-priority issue. He and his friends have a ritual: They meet at a restaurant and let the youngest guy drive. John says his buddies all seem like good drivers to him — the license is just a formality.

Rachel* is 15. Her mother let her start driving when she was 14 — in fact, Rachel made a 90-minute drive to another town with her mother in the passenger seat. "But I wouldn't do it without her — she'd kill me," Rachel says.

Pam,* who is 16 and has a license now, says her mother started allowing her to take the car out a couple of months before she was legal "because I have little brothers and sisters, and it was inconvenient for her to drive me."

Missy,* who is 15 and unlicensed, giggled when she said she takes the car "because it's fun and I think I'm being real bad and a rebel." Gradually, she has overcome the objections of her mother, who has a back injury and cannot drive. "My mom used to let me just go around the block, but then I'm like, 'I want to go to the mall and drive my friends,' and she goes, 'OK,' " Missy says. Missy thinks she's safe because she stays off interstates.

Who's Doing It?

  • 75% of 623 people surveyed at GoodHousekeeping.com said they or their friends had driven a car before they were licensed.

  • 53% of 365 parents surveyed said they knew their kids had driven without a license.

  • 44% of parents said they allowed their unlicensed teenager to drive.

The Dollars and Cents

Let's say your unlicensed teenager gets into a nonfatal accident but does some damage. Who pays? You. The driver's parents — policyholders for the household — are most likely to be held liable. Courts would probably find the parents had given the young driver implicit consent (perhaps by leaving the car keys out), and the parents' insurance company would have to pay out. "You could possibly have your rates increased, or you may even be dropped altogether as a client," says Julie Rochman, a spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association.

And what if your insurance policy covers damages up to $250,000 but the claimant wins a judgment for a million dollars? "Your insurance will pay up to the limit of the policy, but you could be on the hook for the rest," Rochman says. "You could be financially devastated. The larger question is not whether your rates will go up, but whether you will be able to keep your home, your car, or other assets."

Prevent the Next Accident

Police, parents, and community leaders who are involved in the problem of underage driving offer the following suggestions:

For Parents:

Talk to middle schoolers about driving. By that age, they are old enough to have developed grandiose illusions about their skills, bred by experiences with video games and motorized scooters. They need to know that driving is complicated and requires education.

Keep keys out of reach of anyone in the household who doesn't have permission to drive.

Skip the funny stories about surviving your own teenage driving pranks.

For Communities:

Set up anonymous hotlines where teenagers can report their friends' plans for risky or illegal behavior — sneaking out with the family car, planning a beer bash, or anything else.

Consider legislation to control the number of people teenage drivers can transport in a car; accidents are more common when young drivers carry multiple passengers. Such laws would give police officers reason to perform license checks on young-looking drivers who are carrying friends.

* Names have been changed