Teens at high risk in car surfing
A 16-year-old boy recently lay in a medically induced coma in a hospital in this Atlanta suburb. The same situation befell a 16-year-old girl in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Elsewhere in Florida, a 19-year-old was sentenced in February to a year of house arrest and five years of probation for his part in a stunt that left two of his friends dead.
They were all participants in car surfing, a thrill-seeking activity in which people -- mostly teens and young adults -- ride on the exterior of a vehicle while it's being driven by another person.
There are no reliable statistics on how many people are hurt or injured each year in the USA while car surfing because police departments and hospital emergency rooms don't track victims.
A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 58 car-surfing deaths and 41 non-fatal injuries from 1990 through August 2008. That anecdotal study was based on newspaper accounts of car surfing.
Whatever the number of victims, incidents of car surfing could increase over the next few months: Teens have more driving freedom when school lets out, and summer is traditionally the most dangerous season for young drivers.
"Teens are risk takers," says Arlene Greenspan, associate director for science at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC and a co-author of the 2008 study. "It's well documented (that) they look at the fun side of things and don't think about the risk."
Greenspan says parents have substantial influence over what their children do, but many parents might be unaware that car surfing is even one of the dangers awaiting their children. "Parents need to be aware of the risks of some of the things their teens are doing out there," Greenspan says. "They should be addressing these risks with their teens."
In Palm Beach Gardens, Hannah Huntoon, 16, suffered a severe brain injury last month after she was thrown from the trunk of a moving car where she had been standing.
"I didn't even know what car surfing was," her mother, Constance Huntoon, told WPBF 25 News.
Even at speeds as slow as 5 mph, someone thrown from a moving vehicle can be seriously injured or killed, Greenspan says.
Car surfing, at least at the time of the CDC study, was largely a phenomenon in the Midwest and the South, with 75% of victims coming from those two regions; 70% were males, and 69% were ages 15-19.
Researchers also examined behaviors similar to car surfing. They include: people leaning out of a window or the sunroof of a moving vehicle, being pulled alongside or behind a vehicle, usually on a bike or skateboard, and "ghost riding," in which the driver exits a moving vehicle and dances next to it as the vehicle continues to roll forward.
In the recent Georgia car-surfing crash, police said a group of eight teens met one morning at Norcross High School and decided to skip classes to ride in one of their classmates' SUV. The teens were speeding through a neighborhood in Norcross, with as many as three of them riding outside the vehicle and holding onto the side.
The SUV rounded a corner too fast and rolled over onto Alex Mora, 16, crushing his legs. The driver, Alejandro Rodriguez, 18, was charged with hit-and-run, for allegedly leaving the scene, with reckless driving and driving without a license, police said.
In DeBary, Fla., Josh Ritter, 19, was sentenced in February to a year of house arrest and five years probation after pleading no contest to two counts of vehicular homicide and one count of reckless driving stemming from a car-surfing crash last year.
At Ritter's trial, police played cellphone video of a group of young men taking rides on the outside of an SUV on a dirt road in DeBary. Volusia County Sheriff's investigators estimated that the SUV reached speeds of almost 75 mph in a 35-mph zone when the teens realized they were about to crash and screamed for Ritter to stop. Carlos Velazco and Hunter Perez, both 18, were killed.
Volusia County Sheriff's spokesman Gary Davidson says police there rarely see or hear of car-surfing incidents -- but that doesn't mean it's not happening. "Of course, we have no way of knowing how much this is going on," he says. "We only find out about it when there is some tragic consequence like in this particular case or when someone observes it and reports it to us."
"This was an eye-opener for a lot of people who didn't know it was going on or had never heard of car surfing," he says. "As with any dangerous practice, we would encourage parents to talk to their children, to be very conscious of their activities, particularly young teens getting behind the wheel. Law enforcement can only do so much."
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