By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
In recent weeks, youths in their early teens have been involved in vehicle accidents, confirming concerns law enforcement officers have about underage drivers.
On Oct. 3, two 14-year-old Farwell boys were killed and two were seriously injured when a vehicle one of them was driving rolled over on a county road, according to the Parmer County Sheriff’s Department.
Four days later on Curry Road 13, a vehicle driven by a 13-year-old girl rolled and struck a telephone pole. The vehicle was totaled, but the driver and two other 14-year-olds were treated at the scene and walked away from the accident. The girl took the car without permission after her mother went to bed, a state police report said.
Statewide, underage drivers taking to the roads seems to be an issue dealt with primarily in rural areas, according to New Mexico State Police public information officer Lt. Rick Anglada.
“We do come across it more so in the smaller farming communities. I think it’s passed on from generation to generation — it’s the acceptable thing,” he said.
Lt. Patrick Whitney of the Clovis Police Department said underage drivers within the city are rarely encountered by police.
Texico Police Chief John Mares said he pulled over a 14-year-old girl when she failed to stop at a stop sign last month. The judge ordered her to do 12 hours of community service picking up trash on weekends, he said.
Most often law enforcement only becomes aware of an underage driver when a traffic law is broken or an accident occurs, Mares explained.
“You get a kid out here without a drivers license and they have absolutely no clue what the rules of the road are. The one I stopped skidded past a stop sign,” he said. “The law is pretty clear— you have to have a license to operate a vehicle.”
The combination of youthful inexperience and rural dirt or caliche roads with speed limits matching highway speed limits is a dangerous combination, according to Mares.
Capt. Daniel Lopez, State Police commander of District 9, encompassing Curry and Quay counties, said state officers see more underage drivers in rural and farming areas, often a result of farm culture and done with parental consent.
The district has a zero-tolerance policy and issues citations to parents and underage drivers if the parents consented to their child driving, the 20-year police veteran said.
“The number of parents that complain when they are issued a citation for allowing their unlicensed child to drive is above 50 percent. They’re shocked that we would give them a ticket,” he said.
Referring to the Oct. 7 Curry County accident, Lopez said the “crash had a positive ending in that no one lost their life but that’s not always the case,” citing fatalities as a worst-case scenario when an underage person gets behind the wheel.
Experience is the reason behind the state adopting a graduated licensing system for youth, Anglada said.
“They know the car can go fast, but they don’t know how to stop it. With the graduated licensing system, they can get experience little by little.
“If they can prove themselves and show they are responsible, then with the system we have, they graduate to full privileges that an adult has. It’s all for safety reasons — to keep teens safe. One of the top killers of young kids is car crashes,” Anglada said.