Jewel Miller had everything going for her.
The Hephzibah High School athlete and homecoming queen had received her high school diploma less than 48 hours before she lost control of her car on Hephzibah McBean Road and died in May 2010.
Since 2010, seven teens, including Miller, have lost their lives on roads in Richmond and Columbia counties. Five of them died between May and September.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, summer months constitute the most dangerous time for those teens.
Data show an average of 422 teens die in traffic crashes during summer months, compared with a monthly average of 363 in non-summer months.
The most recent local example occurred Friday when Taylor Durrence, 19, of Appling, crossed the center median on Bobby Jones Expressway and hit a tractor-trailer head-on.
Authorities say Durrence had been driving fast.
Summer provides many factors that contribute to teens being killed in traffic accidents. One main factor is teens are more likely to be in groups and out later at night when school is out for the summer.
Despite lawmakers placing restrictions on teen drivers, the deaths among this group increased in 2011, marking the end of eight years of declines, according to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. A report analyzing the data pointed to improving economic conditions as putting more teen drivers behind the wheel.
Law enforcement officials said many of the teen driver laws are difficult to enforce.
“The intentions of the law are very good,” said Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gay.
Georgia laws state that drivers ages 16-18 are prohibited from driving between midnight and 6 a.m. and are restricted from using cell phones. Teen drivers are also not allowed to have any passengers other than immediate family for the first six months, only one non-family passenger under age 21 for the second six months and no more than three non-family passengers under 21 after the first year.
During a traffic stop involving a teen driver, officers go over a series of routine questions to ensure the law is being followed, but the accuracy of the answers is difficult for officers to prove.
Family relationships, for example, are difficult to prove when dealing with underage kids who don’t have identification.
“We have to determine how much we’re going to take on good faith,” Gay said. “Are we going to turn a 10-minute traffic stop into a two-hour interrogation?”
Richmond County deputies cite inexperience and teens’ attachment to cell phones as the main cause of accidents among teens.
In Columbia County, teens account for more than one-fourth of all vehicle accidents. Since 2007, about 5,600 of the 21,000 accidents reported in Columbia County involved a teenager.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 3,000 teens died on U.S. roads in 2009.
In Marian Brock’s driver education class, if she sees a teen texting in class, the student is sent home.
“If that student has to text in that time (in class), then once they get their own vehicle they will text behind the wheel,” Brock said.
She said it’s all about teaching teens to be patient.
Don Brock, the owner of Brock’s Driver Education School, estimates close to 400 teen drivers enter his driver’s training course every year.
In 2007 the Georgia Senate passed Joshua’s Law, requiring all 15-year-olds to complete a driver education course as well as 40 hours of supervised driving experience.
Brock, who has been teaching driver’s education in Augusta since 1975, said there is “no question” that teen drivers today are better than they were 10 years ago thanks to additional requirements from Joshua’s Law.
However, he said today’s teen drivers have shorter attention spans and are more aggressive.
“They want everything right now,” he said. “They don’t want to give the time to mature into their driving skills.”
While the driver education class focuses on the teen, Marian Brock said she also tries to stress to parents to set a good example to their children.
“We as adults need to realize our teens are watching us and how we drive,” she said.
A mother’s story
Roz Miller said she was guilty of texting while driving, even though she knew it was wrong.
When deputies said her daughter was texting at the wheel just before her crash, Miller felt guilty for not setting a better example.
“Your kids will do what you do,” she said.
Jewel Miller’s family described her as “a trailblazer” who was eager to start college and work toward a career in psychology, where she hoped to affect others positively. The teen had already been discussing an athletic scholarship with a Wisconsin college.
In the early-morning hours of May 27, 2010, Jewel’s family was called to Hephzibah-McBean Road, where they found that the 18-year-old lost control of her Chevy Aveo and ran off the road. Her car struck a power pole, snapping it in half and causing her to be ejected from the vehicle. The car burst into flames.
She was partially trapped under the vehicle and suffered burns over most of her body, which caused her death.
Immediately, two of Jewel’s four siblings swore off driving. In the two years that have passed, one sibling has come around, but her brother is still skittish behind the wheel.
After Miller’s death, the family chose to honor the teen’s life goal of helping others by sharing her story.
Roz Miller toured several high schools and colleges with her daughter’s wrecked car, speaking with students on the importance of not texting behind the wheel.
“Our goal from the beginning was just that no one has to experience what we went through,” Roz Miller said.
The family still hears from students and their parents who tell them how their daughter’s story has changed their driving practices.
“She always said she wanted to make an impact,” Roz Miller said. “She did that.”