Superintendent Carol Ann MacDonald is braced for Tuesday’s return to class at Grande Prairie Composite High School, where flower arrangements line the lobby and staff members wear orange ribbons in honour of the four student football players killed in a weekend car crash.
“This is hard. This is hard on them. And they’re looking after each other,” she said of staff and students.
Perhaps it’s too soon to play armchair quarterback over the incident in which it is alleged that a 21-year-old drunk driver plowed into the vehicle of a group of students shortly after midnight, but Ms. MacDonald acknowledged on Monday that tougher laws involving young drivers could have made a difference.
In Nova Scotia, where she last worked, the newly licensed cannot be on the road between midnight and 5 a.m. unless they are accompanied by an experienced driver.
“There, five kids wouldn’t have been on the road after midnight. But we’re not there yet,” she said of linking the deaths to road rules.
Walter Borden-Wilkins, 15, Matthew Deller, 16, Tanner Hildebrand, 15, and Vincent Stover, 16, died in the crash. Zachary Judd, 15, is in critical, but stable condition, according to his mother. A week earlier, four teens from Magrath were killed in an accident Mounties in that Southern Alberta community blamed on “speed and driver inexperience.”
Although the circumstances are different, with a more stringent regulatory regime such as the systems in Nova Scotia, Ontario or British Columbia, which ban late-night driving, mandates adult supervision or limits the number of passengers, perhaps eight Alberta teens would still be alive.
Alberta Transportation Minister Ray Danyluk pledged on Monday to look at the province’s graduated driver licensing or GDL system, which allows 14-year-olds behind the wheel under supervision, and permits 16-year-olds to be out at all hours, unsupervised and with as many passengers as their vehicle has seatbelts.
“In some ways, it’s working, but maybe it’s not working to a degree that it could,” said Mr. Danyluk, who pointed to a 45-per-cent lower collision rate overall for new drivers since the GDL program was introduced almost decade ago.
“I’m always open to look at seeing how we can make it more effective and better and safer,” he added.
In Canada in 2009, there were 240 fatalities, 1,400 serious injuries and 20,632 injuries among people aged 15 to 19 on the roads, according to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation.
Dan Mayhew, the foundation’s senior vice-president, said the GDL programs have cut the crash risk by 20 to 40 per cent. But with every additional passenger in the vehicle with a teen driver, the accident risk jumps. And night-time driving can be particularly hazardous. Some U.S. jurisdictions have a 9 p.m. curfew.
“Some systems are stronger than others, but I wouldn’t think that any of the Canadian jurisdictions really have ideal systems,” Mr. Mayhew said.
Peter Christianson, president of Young Drivers of Canada, said teens are not hard-wired to be good drivers, and the problem is compounded by the distraction of having friends in the car.
“We know that the brain does not mature cognitively until age 25, and that’s a huge part of this story that has been ignored by government. They do not have the ability to stay focused. They cannot handle switching attention or divided attention tasks,” Mr. Christianson said.
Observers also say families should have their own rules.
The teens in Magrath died when their Ford Explorer went off a dirt road around a bend, hit a guard rail, flipped and landed on its roof in a creek. Sixteen-year-old Clay Card was driving with passengers Renzo Dainard, 16, and 14-year-old girls Danae Gough and Jorden Miller.
Gord Card said Clay had several years of experience driving on the farm and country roads and had taken a driver-education course. He didn’t worry about him “being stupid” and he was never the type of parent to “lock your kids away in a glass cage.”
“You can teach them everything but luck,” Mr. Card said. “As far as making the roads safer, I don’t know. In our case it was just a freak accident.”
RCMP Sergeant Kelly McCoy, whose detachment investigated that crash, said what young people need is not necessarily more regulations, but gravel road training. So-called skid-school teaches young drivers how to recover when their vehicle loses control.
“I just think we’re failing the young drivers because they don’t have the experience,” said Sgt. Kelly, adding that it could be part of driver testing.
In Grande Prairie, the Warriors football team returned to practice on Monday. About half the team suited up, as parents watched and expressed mixed feelings about driving laws.
Sheena Lundstad said the province should consider preventing teen drivers, including her 17-year-old son, Zach, who plays for the Warriors, from being on the road late at night.
“I don't like it one bit. Because I know how easily they can be distracted,” she said. “Like, five kids, you know? Hyped up. I get distracted when my own kids are talking.”
Other parents said the teens were driving responsibly and tighter restrictions aren’t worth taking away their chance to drive.
“What did you do at 16?” said Chris Kendall, whose 15-year-old son, Jared, is on the team. “I don't think it’s fair to connect those.”