A year of death for high schools - The Explorer: Import

A year of death for high schools

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Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Students and recent graduates from Canyon del Oro High School filed into a funeral chapel June 4 to say goodbye to Gary Durrenberger - the seventh Northwest student to die this school year in an accident involving a teenage driver.

The funeral service followed a May 25 move by the Arizona Senate to defeat a bill that would have given teens more hours of driving instruction before they receive their licenses. The Senate voted 20-10 to keep the state's driving requirement at 25 hours rather than bumping it to 50.

A strong voice against the bill belonged to Sen. Marsha Arzberger D-Willcox.

"It takes 40 hours in an airplane to get a pilot's license," Arzberger said. "I don't think you need to exceed that for a driver's license."

Before 2000, driver's education was not required in Arizona. Now students must either complete a program approved by the Arizona Department of Transportation or have a supervising adult sign a statement saying they had 25 hours of driving practice.

For six years, some state lawmakers have been trying to legislate safer driving among teens by proposing restrictions to their nighttime driving and transporting of teenage passengers. The recently defeated bill to give teens more driving practice was all that was left of a larger proposal that had once included such restrictions.

"I was stunned when I found out how little time student drivers take behind the wheel," said Charles Durrenberger, whose son died June 1 after trying to pass a flatbed truck on his way home from Mexico. "I was flabbergasted. That needs to change."

Police said the accident did not involve alcohol, drugs or speeding.

The younger Durrenberger died just two weeks after graduating. He was enrolled in a writing class at Pima Community College, and worked at Little Caesar's pizza.

On the eve of the first day of Durrenberger's senior year, the girlfriend of one of his best friends at CDO died in a car accident that did involve alcohol. Emily Bowman, 16, was one of three young Northwest residents killed when the minivan they were in overturned at West Overton Road and North Rancho Feliz Drive. A graduate of Amphitheater High School was also killed, along with the 16-year-old driver - a student at Ironwood Ridge High School.

"Gary was real quiet about that - he didn't say a lot," the elder Durrenberger said. "He kept it inside as boys are prone to do. I could tell he was hurting. We talked about that being a lesson to make the best decisions. Your life is about the decisions you make."

In October, a 17-year-old Marana High School student died when the passengerless car he was driving smashed into a telephone pole along Avra Valley Road, just east of North Trico Road. Police said the crash did not appear to involve drugs or alcohol.

During spring break, two Ironwood Ridge students died after speeding at between 75 and 80 mph over a dip on West Sumpter Drive that teens like to take fast. The 16-year-old driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed. No alcohol was involved.

In April, a 17-year-old Marana student lost control of her car and died after engaging with police in a 30-mile high-speed car chase. She was driving without a license and was skipping school, but otherwise it's unclear why she didn't stop.

Then on June 1, two weeks after CDO and Ironwood Ridge hosted blowout parties to keep their graduates safely off the roads on graduation night, another Northwest student died behind the wheel.

"It's almost ironic that we started the school year with an accident the day before school started and ended the school year that way," said Susan Jenkins, the counselor at CDO who offered a listening ear to one of the accident survivors.

Jenkins, who has counseled CDO students for 12 years, said an average of one student a year dies at her school in a vehicle-related accident, but any death of a student is one too many.

"I don't know the boy who died, but I sat down this morning and just cried," she said. "He was an only child like my daughter, who got her driver's license today."

The accident that killed 18-year-old Durrenberger happened as he was driving home from a trip to Puerto Penasco, Mexico, with two friends.

Just before 7 a.m., his car hit a flatbed truck on Arizona 85 in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. He was about five miles north of the Lukeville port of entry when he started to pass the truck. Noticing that it was slowing down to turn left into the park's visitor center, though, he moved back to the right lane. Still, his car struck the truck, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Had Durrenberger lived, he would have gotten a ticket for attempting to pass in a no-pass zone, said Officer Steve Volden, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Safety.

Derek Larson, who, along with his friend David Hoag, had been asleep in the car, said he woke up to find the roof caved in on Durrenberger, and the windows broken. Larson is the son of Melanie Larson, publisher of the Northwest EXPLORER.

The three travelers were close friends. Durrenberger had talked about rooming with Hoag in the event that he decided to enroll in Mesa College in the fall. Durrenberger and Larson had become Arizona State Champions together in 2000 while playing on a Little League Junior Division All-Stars baseball team. Charles Durrenburger was the coach of that team.

So the night of the accident, he invited Larson, Hoag and two other grieving teens to spend the night at their absent friend's house.

"Charles and us talked a little bit about Gary and the things he liked - the things he used to say," Larson said. "We reminisced and talked about the Mexico trip and how much fun Gary had."

The elder Durrenberger said in a phone interview that while he and his wife are grieving the loss of their only son, they are also grateful that the passengers in the car were not seriously injured.

Lobbyists who have tried unsuccessfully for six years to limit the number of passengers that teen drivers can carry, say they will be back during next year's legislative session trying again.

"We want to keep them out of situations where they are at high risk," said David Cowley, a spokesperson for AAA Arizona.

AAA Arizona is pushing for legislation that would make it illegal for teens to drive between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless it is to or from a school function or work, and that would keep teens from carrying more than one teen passenger without the supervision of a parent or guardian. Siblings are exceptions.

"We'll be back next year with exactly the same bill," he said.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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