Rural Roads + Distracted Driving = Safety Challenges for Clarke Teens

Editor’s note: This story and Sheriff Roper’s comments were recorded prior to Friday’s accident that took the life of Aaron Benjamin Shirley.

With Clarke County’s schools out for the summer many of our newly licensed young drivers will shift their attention from scholastics to road skills. Summer’s long days and dry road conditions offer an excellent opportunity for young drivers to venture out under newly issued driving licenses.

According to Clarke County Sheriff, Tony Roper, distracted driving is a growing safety concern, especially for teen drivers. “Distracted driving is a more serious issue today. Our society encourages us all to be more ‘connected’ and, as a result, we keep electronic communication devices at our fingertips.”  Roper says that attention has only to be redirected for a second to have catastrophic consequences. “I encourage parents to establish strict rules relating to cell phone usage while driving. We all need to set a good example by personally limiting the use of these devices while operating a motor vehicle.”

Image courtesy of New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, Resources for the Younger Drivers

For most young people, driving offers new levels of independence and responsibility. However, driving also carries a much higher level of risk for young drivers according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Center for Statistics  and Analysis. In 2008:

  • Hand-held cellphone use was highest among 16- to 24-year-olds (8% in 2008, down from 9% in 2007).
  • 37% of male drivers ages 15-20 who were involved in fatal crashes were speeding at the time.
  • 55%, or 2,014, of the 3,678 occupants of passenger vehicles ages 16-20 who were killed in crashes were not buckled up.
  • 31% of drivers ages 15-20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking some amount of alcohol; 25% were alcohol-impaired, meaning they had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher.
  • 16- and 17-year-old driver death rates increase with each additional passenger.
  • 16-year-olds have higher crash rates than drivers of any other age.
  • 16-year-olds are 3 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than the average of all drivers

The Commonwealth of Virginia has instituted a number of driving restrictions intended to help young drivers stay safe while they gain valuable driving experience. Studies have found that these restrictions work to reduce the number of car crashes among young drivers.

Curfew Restrictions

Virginia’s curfew laws prohibit a driver under age 18 who holds a learner’s permit or driver’s license from driving midnight to 4 A.M. If you hold a driver’s license you may drive during these hours:

  • in case of an emergency;
  • when traveling to and from work or a school-sponsored event;
  • when accompanied by a parent or other adult acting in place of a parent;
  • when responding to an emergency call as a volunteer firefighter or rescue squad personnel.

Passenger Restrictions

Sheriff Roper points out that electronic devices are not the only source of distraction for young drivers. “I encourage parents to know who is traveling with our young drivers, and where they are going. A large number of passengers can be as much of a distraction as cell phone usage.”

Virginia’s traffic laws limit the number of occupants in a young driver’s vehicle, however the passenger restrictions do not apply to family members;    If you are under age 18, you may carry only one passenger under age 18 during the first year that you hold your driver’s license. After you have held your license for one year, you may carry only three passengers under age 18 until you reach age 18. Learner’s permit holders may not carry more than one passenger under age 18.

Violations of either the curfew or passenger restrictions can result in the suspension of your driver’s license.

If you are 19 years of age and older and you have never held a license issued by any state, U.S. territory or foreign country, you must hold a learner’s permit for 30 days or more or show completion of a state-approved driver education program.

Cellular Telephone/Wireless Telecommunications Device Restrictions

Virginia’s cellular telephone law restricts a driver under age 18 who holds a learner’s permit or driver’s license from using any cellular telephone or any other wireless telecommunications device, regardless of whether such device is or is not hand-held. If you are under age 18, you can only use a cell phone or any other telecommunications device:

  • for a driver emergency;
  • when the vehicle is lawfully parked or stopped.

Teen Driver Safety Tips

Clarke County’s rural roads offer specific challenges compared to the urban driving conditions encountered in neighboring Loudoun and Frederick County according to Sheriff Roper. “Safe driving measures are just as important in our rural setting, as several recent accidents on our ‘back roads’ indicate. We have issues, for example, with animals that our urban neighbors do not. Livestock and and wildlife on the roadway are serious concerns.”

The following safety tips are intended especially for new drivers but will also help seasoned drivers to “arrive alive”. Safe, responsible driving all begins with you:

  • Buckle up! Make sure you always wear your seat belt and that everyone else in the vehicle is buckled up. This is your best defense against anything that might happen on the road.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep. Teens need more sleep than younger children and adults. Teens need at least nine hours of sleep every night, but most teens are sleep deprived and get less than seven hours of sleep each night. With school, homework, jobs, sports and social activities, sleeping for nine hours can be a challenge, but sleep allows you to stay alert while driving.
  • If you are a teen with a motorcycle, make sure you take motorcycle safety training and always wear your safety gear. Motorcycle helmets are required on Virginia roadways and are necessary to protect your head.
  • Alcohol use by people under the age of 21 is prohibited in Virginia. Virginia has a “zero tolerance” law regarding teens and alcohol use. Some of the penalties include losing your license, large fines and maybe jail time. The legal limit for teens is a .02 blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the normal alcohol content of the average person. So, even a small amount of alcohol can be too much.
  • Single vehicle crashes are the most common type of crash involving teens. Speed, lack of seat belt use, inexperience and alcohol use are contributing factors to fatalities and serious injuries in these crashes.
  • Parents and caregivers have a big role in teen driver safety right from the beginning. Take your teen out to practice their skills, set clear ground rules and stick to them, and most importantly, be a good role model. Always buckle up, obey speed limits, and don’t drive aggressively.
  • Drive sober. Alcohol and drugs are illegal, slow your reaction-time, and distort reality. At the same time, they may make you think you’re an awesome driver. Avoid this bad combination. Don’t drink and drive.
  • Ride with sober drivers. If you’re riding with a driver who has been drinking or doing drugs, you’re also in danger because 48 percent of teenagers who die in car crashes are passengers.
  • Always use your safety belt. These are the facts: air bags are made to work with safety belts, and most crashes happen close to home. So buckle up for every trip.
  • Always drive with your headlights on. See and be seen.
  • Don’t tailgate. Try to keep four seconds of following distance between your car and the vehicle in front of you.
  • Focus on your driving. Don’t blast the music, talk on the phone, eat, study, or put on makeup while driving.
  • Don’t load up your car with too many friends. Focus on your driving, and resist distractions and peer pressure.
  • Don’t get stressed out. Pretend everyone else on the road is a close, personal friend.
  • Check the rearview mirror before and after you brake, every time.
  • Follow traffic safety rules and don’t drive faster than the speed limit. Watch your speed!
  • Never let friends drive your car. If your friends drive your car and crash, you could lose money, car privileges, a friendship, and even your life.


  1. Doug Landry says:

    Sadly, it seems that these good tips get lost on some teens, who feel invincible or that it won’t happen to them. After nearly losing two other teens not quite a year ago, it’s a shame that more attention isn’t paid by these young drivers.

    God’s Peace be with the Shirley family, and those of the other teens in that truck.