School was just letting out when we heard the sirens.
Cell phones and Facebook lit up, and within minutes everybody in our small town knew three 11th-grade girls had in a dogwood-lined neighborhood across from the school.
As stunned students stood nearby, a medical helicopter landed in the school parking lot to transport the one passenger who was ejected from the vehicle. A second passenger and the driver were cut out of the car and transported to other hospitals.
Parents, friends and fellow students — we held our breath as we waited to hear . They had multiple broken bones. They might not be dancing at prom in three weeks. But they would eventually return to normal activities — and to corroborate witness accounts making their way around town.
No, they weren't drinking and driving.
They weren't even texting and driving.
They were speeding.
And possibly racing.
Witnesses saw the girls traveling at a "very high rate of speed," in the wrong lane parallel to a second car going in the same direction on the 25-mph residential boulevard where little kids walk to and from school. As the three high-schoolers, all good students involved in multiple extracurricular activities, zoomed past the other car, they struck a median, flipped several times and slammed into a tree.
A group of parents, listening to the story unfold last week outside the tennis courts at , wondered how even good students make poor choices.
"What were they thinking?" one mom said.
Chances are, they weren't. And if we adults dig back far enough, we can remember how we felt on our own sunny afternoons three weeks before prom, when we, too, had steering wheels in the grips of our immortal, unthinking hands.
Parents now, we all wish for some guarantee that a similar — or worse — fate won't befall our own children. We think they are immune if they're on student council or captain of the tennis team. But, in fact, they're not exempt from the individuating that allows teen-agers to become adults. Part of what they do — part of what they are expected to do — is test the boundaries. We just pray the boundaries aren't the edges of a cliff.
It's only been a few days since the accident. We don't yet know whether the three girls were racing, or just horsing around, or exactly how fast they were going.
What we do know is that car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teens, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
We also know that speed is a factor in more crashes involving teens than any other age group, that teen speeding increasingly involves trying to outpace another car, and racing may be on the rise because of racing video games, according to a National Young Driver Survey of 5,700 high-schoolers.
Parents all worry about their kids texting and driving. But what we may not realize is that speed can be even more of a danger. In a study of 2,300 students by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, students who said they had a near-miss while driving were questioned about what they were doing at the time of the incident. Seventeen percent said they were changing music; 20 percent said they were talking to a passenger; 21 percent said they were texting; and 30 percent said they were speeding.
As these things go, our community is holding a little tighter this week. Worried parents ask each other what they should do when a child wants or needs to ride with a teen driver. What if that teen has a bad driving record? When do you trust? When do you nag?
Some of us are calling for legislators to raise the driving age from 16 to 18, when the frontal cortex is a little more apt to tell a teen-ager to slow down, turn down the radio, turn off the phone.
All of us are watching a little closer.
As my 19-year-old daughter ran out the door in a hurry the other day, she yelled out to me.
"Call me, Mom! Text me!"
"Okay," I said, as I turned back to what I was doing.
Suddenly, I jumped up and ran to the door.
"Go slow. Don't text and drive!" I called out.
Maybe this was the one time she was going to make a bad choice. Maybe she was going to say to herself, "Just this once." Maybe it was my calling out that stopped her.