Tougher laws on teen drivers recommended by teens themselves

ATLANTA — Caleb Sorohan was watching his cellphone instead of the road when his life ended.

While the Rutledge, Ga., teenager was texting his friends, his Saturn crossed the center line and collided with a Toyota Sequoia pulling a horse trailer.

The 18-year-old was killed instantly.

“The state patrol officer came to us to tell us what happened,” said Caleb’s mother, Mandi Sorohan, “and he said this is an epidemic.”

Now Caleb’s brother, Griffin, has joined with 21 other teenagers from around the state to help fight that plague. All are members of Georgia’s Commission on Teen Driving, an all-teen group that began meeting in October to develop ways to reduce teen fatalities.

Their recommendations to toughen laws on teen driving were not voted into law this legislative session, which ended Thursday. But Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, has high hopes for the next session.

“We’ve got to help them get (this legislation) to the finish line,” said Blackwood.

While teen deaths in Georgia have actually dropped recently, bucking the national trend, car accidents are still the No. 1 cause of teen deaths, said Blackwood, “more than cancer or any other kind of accident.”

Blackwood hopes to lower those numbers by going to the highest authority on teen drivers: teens. Georgia’s teen-only commission, appointed last fall, is the only one of its kind in the country, he said, and has yielded advice that adults might not have considered.

For example, the teens made a point off focusing on texting, rather than impaired driving, said Karla Sidey, of Dillard, Ga., whose son Nathan is also a commission member.

“They said, ‘Don’t show us what all the different drugs are; we’ve seen them since we were in fifth grade,’” she said. “The real issue is the texting and the distraction.”

Karla’s husband was killed by a teen driver when their son, Nathan, was 21 months old. Now Nathan is 17, and a member of the teen commission. Even in the absence of legislation, Nathan said, the members of the commission ought to bring their ideas back to their high schools and emulate the high school in Athens, Ga., that revokes the parking permit of any student caught texting and driving .

Georgia’s original law banning texting and driving was passed in 2010 and named after Caleb Sorohan.

“Four days after his death, my whole family was sitting down, and we decided we needed to make something good come out of this,” said Griffin Sorohan.

Mandi Sorohan and Caleb’s sister, Alex, met with legislators and were instrumental in getting the texting ban passed.

But, Griffin said, a complete ban on handheld cellphones would make the texting ban more easily enforceable, explaining that officers can’t tell if a driver is texting or simply dialing. Griffin, 16, and his fellow commission members also suggested better driver education and a graduated series of penalties for repeat violations of the texting law, with penalties that included community service rather than fines. Fines frequently get paid by mom and dad, but community service does not, they explained.

Teens think they are invincible, said Mandi Sorohan, but they are fragile. Even more fragile is the happiness of a family that has lost a child.

“None of us in our family wants another family to go through that,” she said. “It’s just a senseless way to die. It’s not worth it.”