Ronnie Polaneczky: For Lacey's sake, pass teen-driver law

Lacey Gallagher died two years ago in a prom-night crash in car full of teens.
Lacey Gallagher died two years ago in a prom-night crash in car full of teens.
Posted: October 13, 2009

TWO-AND-A-HALF years after Little Flower High School senior Lacey Gallagher died in a prom-night car wreck, two things remain unchanged:

Fishtown continues to hold her family in a tight embrace of comfort.

And legislation that could prevent teen-driving tragedies languishes in Harrisburg, doing no one any good.

"It's so frustrating," said Lacey's mom, Denise Gallagher. "We've been working so hard to get a law passed. We know it will help parents keep their children safe. We had no idea Lacey was in danger. We would've done everything different."

I caught up with Denise on Monday, as she recovered from the bittersweet festivities of "Lacey Day," a huge party attended by nearly 500 supporters over the weekend to raise money for the Lacey Fund. That's the name of the nonprofit that the Gallaghers established in Lacey's name to provide tuition help for Catholic-school students and to lobby for passage of tougher teen-driving laws.

"We could feel Lacey's presence," Denise said. "The way people have supported our cause is breathtaking to me."

If only Harrisburg would do the same. Thanks to plenty of lobbying on the part of advocates for restrictions on teen drivers, our esteemed legislators know - and appear to be willfully ignoring - what many parents don't know, which is this:

Teen-driver crashes are the leading cause of death among teens.

In fact, 16-year-old drivers have crash rates three times higher than 17-year-old drivers and five times higher than 18-year-old drivers - because the part of the brain affecting risk-taking behavior and judgment isn't fully developed until we're closer to our 20s.

Most teen-driver crashes are caused not by drugs, booze or deliberately risky behavior but by distractions and/or inexperience - and one of the biggest distractions is the presence of other teens in the car. The more teens in the car, the higher the risk for a fatal crash - up to five times higher when two or more teen passengers are in the car.

These findings are not anecdotal but are supported by solid evidence collected by the Keeping Young Drivers Safer project - a massive effort by researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and State Farm Insurance Cos. to reduce teen-driver crashes.

In states where restrictions on teen driving have gone into effect, teen-caused crash fatalities and injuries have plummeted.

In the last four years, three bills have been introduced in Harrisburg that incorporate what we now know about teen driving. The bills would require teens to have more experience driving in inclement weather before getting their license and also would restrict the number of teen passengers allowed in a car driven by a teen.

The bills have gone nowhere.

The first bill, introduced by Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks, died in session. The second, lobbied by Rep. Joe Markosek,

D-Allegheny, passed the House but is saddled with so many controversial amendments, it'll be a miracle if it ever makes it out of the Senate Transportation Committee, where it's slumbering peacefully. A third, introduced by Watson, seeks to pick up where her failed first bill left off. It's also stalled.

"Now that the budget has passed, maybe we can get some traction," Watson told me yesterday, sounding frustrated. "The research supports every single restriction we're pushing for."

If the Gallaghers had known any of the research, Denise said, they never would have allowed Lacey to ride with six other teens in a car driven by a 17-year-old on a foggy, rainy, late-night post-prom ride up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. When the car hit a cement lane divider and flipped, Lacey was thrown from the car and died. The others were seriously injured.

If restricted teen-driving laws had been in effect, Lacey would be preparing to turn 21 two weeks from now. Instead, those who loved her are throwing fund-raisers in her name, to keep her memory alive.

If seat belt laws have made us safer, and child-safety-seat laws have made kids safer, why can't we pass teen-driving laws that will keep teenage drivers safer - and us safer from them?

"If I'd know then what I know now, I'd never have let Lacey get in that car," said Denise. "I live with the guilt of that every day."

While her lack of knowledge can be forgiven, Harrisburg's lack of action is unforgivable.

For information on how to support the passage of restrictions on teen driving in Pennsylvania, go to www.thelaceyfund.org and click on "Promise to Lacey."

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

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