Five Grand Haven High School girls were injured when their vehicle rolled while on the way to a girls semifinal basketball game on March 16. Three of the girls, ages 16 and 17, were not wearing seat belts and were ejected from the vehicle.
The 16-year-old driver would normally not be allowed to have more than one unrelated person under age 21 in the car under Michigan’s graduated license system. However, there is an exception for authorized activity, such as a school-sanctioned event or activity, according to information taken from the Michigan Secretary of State website.
And while that is allowed, it is not recommended, according to the Michigan State Police website.
A section on restricting passengers states: “Crash risk for teenage drivers increases incrementally with one, two, or three or more passengers. With three or more passengers, fatal crash risk is about three times higher than when a beginner is driving alone. While night driving with passengers is particularly lethal, many fatal crashes with teen passengers occur during the day. The best policy is to restrict teenage passengers, especially multiple teens, all the time.”
Media at the scene of the March 16 crash were told by Michigan State Police that state law — while requiring seat belt use in the front seats of motor vehicles — allows anyone 16 and older to decide whether or not to use a seat belt in the back seat.
But Lt. Chris McIntire, commander of the Rockford state police post, said “they put seat belts in the back seat for a reason” — and, if you put your seat belt on, bad things are not going to happen.
“It sounds pretty simple to me,” he said. “You save your life.”
Some state lawmakers have pushed legislation to change the existing law.
"I think it's still premature to consider making any changes until police finalize their accident investigation," State Rep. Amanda Price, R-Park Township. "The girls and their families are still in my thoughts and prayers."
A week after the accident involving the GHHS juniors, three women from the Holland area were injured when their car went off the road and hit a tree on Lakeshore Drive at Ferris Street in Grand Haven Township, just a short distance from Grand Haven High School. This accident also happened late in the morning and the one passenger in the back seat was not wearing a seat belt, according to police. She was thrown forward and hit the dash of the car, suffering serious injuries.
Grand Haven Township Fire Chief Tom Gerencer said at the time that everyone’s hearts were in their throats, hearing that teens were in a bad accident so near the high school so soon after the other accident. The chief expressed frustration that people wouldn’t put on their seat belts in the back seats.
Teri Carpenter, who started the “Prayers for 5 Grand Haven Girls” Facebook page, said she was talking to a young woman who had graduated from GHHS in 2009.
The woman told her that the accident made her decide to wear her seat belt in the back seat, Carpenter said.
“A tragedy as it is, it has brought the community together and changed people’s attitudes,” Carpenter said. “It’s opening a lot of people's eyes that we need to wear our seat belts no matter where we are in the vehicle.”