Accidents early into driving career shake confidence behind the wheel

Aimee Liu | The Chronicle

While getting behind the wheel is one of the most anticipated events for high schoolers, some students’ driving experiences have been curbed by car crashes.

A 2021 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety survey found that teen drivers–those between 15 and 20 years of age–have crash rates nearly four times higher than those for adults. This statistic has involved some Mason High School drivers, who have been affected by and involved in accidents.

When senior Zaina Dahman left her house on Monday, August 16, the first day of school for all students, she felt she was ready to face her final first day. However, after going down Mason Montgomery Road and attempting to call her dad to wish him a ‘happy birthday,’ she lost her focus and said that traffic congestion caused her to hit another car.

“There was a lot of heavy traffic and I was trying to turn left at the police station,” Dahman said. “There was another high schooler in the left turn lane and it [got] backed up. I just wasn’t paying attention and I ended up rear-ending the right side of his car.”

After the accident, Dahman said she was in shock. With her car in the middle of the road, she turned her blinkers on, the other driver doing the same. She said she called her mom immediately and tried to process what had just happened.

“It was just really scary, it happened so fast,” Dahman said. “I was crying and shaking because I was really nervous.”

Following the initial shock and ensuring that everyone involved was okay, as both she and the driver had their sisters in the car with them, logistical questions surrounding insurance and finances began to fly through Dahman’s head. Since the situation was so chaotic, Dahman said it took a while before someone called the police and they arrived at the scene.

“[The officers] pulled us into the police station parking lot,” Dahman said. “They took my license and asked a bunch of questions.”

Dahman was then told by police that she was at fault for the accident and asked if she wanted to object by testifying in court. Not wanting to go through the entire complex process, Dahman said she decided to take the blame during her court trial, which she had to undergo due to her being a minor. The court decided to suspend Dahman’s license for 30 days and to get it back, according to Dahman, she had to attend a “teenage driver’s education class for two hours.”

Aside from stress and testimonials in court, drivers that were in accidents must also contemplate the potential fees that they must pay for the damage. While Dahman’s fees were technically covered by insurance, she said she still felt it was important to pay them herself and take full responsibility.

“[If insurance pays your fees], that means your parents’ monthly insurance increases,” Dahman said. “I decided to pay the deductible for the insurance from my own money.”

Added to every other aspect of the situation, Dahman also faced reactions from those around her, including her parents and friends. She said she felt reassured by her parent’s soothing response to her situation.

“My parents, because I was very panicky, were very calming,” Dahman said. “When I called them, they weren’t yelling at all. My dad was at work so he wasn’t able to come, but my mom came and was very calm. I think they were just more worried for my safety and wanted me to learn from my mistake.”

The first week after Dahman got her license back, she said she “wasn’t really comfortable” because driving seemed “scary” and she “didn’t want to make the same mistake again.” However, after facing the consequences of the crash, Dahman tried to use her experience as a learning opportunity.

“Now I drive a lot slower and try to leave my house earlier,” Dahman said. “I try to not ever be on my phone. I started making playlists instead of going through and looking for songs.”

Junior Domenica Marietta was also involved in a car accident. Before the end of the 2020-21 school year, she was going out to a baseball game with friends and drove to Buffalo Wild Wings after. It was her first day with her driver’s license. She said that a man crashed into her in the middle of a crowded parking lot.

“This man was parked in a parking spot and I was driving to go park,” Marietta said. “I was letting pedestrians cross and as I was stopped, the driver pulled out and ran into the side of my car in front of tons of people. The sound was terrible, he rammed right into my side. The whole side of the car was dented.”

Immediately, Marietta began crying in disbelief, shocked that her first driving experience resulted in an accident. She said she pulled into a parking space to talk to the other driver, who was behaving aggressively.

“I pulled into a spot and the guy started yelling at me,” Marietta said. “I was honestly shocked. I thought I was in a dream, I was pinching myself. I [did not believe] this was happening, at [that moment] and in front of all those people.”

According to Marietta, the other driver tried to convince her not to call the cops, but Marietta insisted that the damage be reported. When the cops showed up, they began gathering information on the accident. Later, Marietta was asked to attend a virtual call with the driver and their insurance companies to settle repercussions.

“[The driver] was trying to say I was parked behind him and wouldn’t let him get out,” Marietta said. “But I was just letting pedestrians cross.”

In court, Marietta had the chance to explain the situation first and, when she did, the driver’s attorney agreed that Marietta was not responsible. Ultimately, the other driver was ordered to pay for the damages.

Upon telling others about being in a car accident, Marietta said she received a lot of worry and questioning in response, especially from her parents. Word about her situation made its way around the school, causing her friends to also voice their concerns.

“My mom is a worrier and she was worried that whole day about me driving,” Marietta said. “When I called her, she just started bawling. My dad was more angry at the guy for hitting me. [People in school] kept asking me what happened. I’d just tell them it wasn’t my fault and that it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Although many people have fears of getting into a car crash, the reality of them is all too familiar for students like Dahman and Marietta, people that have experienced them first-hand. Through her experiences, Marietta said she learned that, even while being a responsible driver, no amount of precaution will completely guarantee safety.

“It definitely made me ten times more aware,” Marietta said. “You wouldn’t imagine that situation would happen to you, so [the accident] opened my eyes to how anything can happen. Just be a defensive driver and ready for anything.”

Dahman also utilized her troubling scenario as a learning experience and said she believes that her experience shows how stressful the first couple weeks of school are. She said that, however stressful a situation may be, maintaining a calm and rational demeanor is crucial to making the correct decisions. She said she encourages others to practice safer driving because the possibility of an accident is always very real.

“As long as everyone’s safe, there’s no need to panic,” Dahman said. “I think just paying attention while you’re driving and making sure you’re focused is most important.”

Illustration by Allison Droege