It's a migration of sorts that occurs biannually: Teenage drivers, many of them inexperienced and fresh behind the wheel, take to heavily traveled roadways to attend state tournament games and matches in some of Nebraska's largest cities.
These new drivers, who sometimes believe they are invincible, can easily be distracted by texting, cellphone calls, the radio dial, iPods and their friends in the backseat.
They face a daunting challenge that even veteran motorists are mindful of: heavy traffic that includes semitrailer trucks barreling along at speeds of 75 mph.
Each fall, many teens without adult supervision hit the unfamiliar highways for state tournament volleyball matches in Grand Island, cross-country in Kearney and high school football playoff games across the state.
In late winter, young motorists are back on the road, heading for the state wrestling tourney in Omaha and the state swimming meet and basketball tournaments in Lincoln.
Two such teens were injured Thursday morning in a one-car accident on Interstate 80 between Waco and Utica as a girl and two friends were driving home after a volleyball tournament game in Grand Island.
A 2008 Nissan sport utility vehicle driven by Brooke Olson, 16, of La Vista was eastbound shortly before noon when the vehicle drifted toward the median with one tire slightly leaving the roadway. York County sheriff's deputies said Olson overcorrected and the SUV veered into the south ditch, slid onto its side and came to rest on its top.
Two other students — Danielle and Julia Soucie, both 16, of Papillion — were in the car. Danielle Soucie suffered minor injuries. She and Olson were treated at York General Hospital and released Thursday.
The accident “was not a texting issue,'' a deputy said. “Just inexperience.'' Marian chartered three buses for students to attend Friday's volleyball semifinal matchup with Lincoln Pius X in Grand Island.
They have the option to take a bus or drive, said Kathy Tompkins, assistant principal. “But we encourage them to take the buses.''
Tompkins said driver safety is stressed at Marian throughout the school year.
“We're always safety first. We also promote no texting while driving. I'm big on that,'' she said.
A school spokeswoman said Lincoln Pius X chartered a bus for students who attended Thursday's first-round victory over Lincoln Southeast.
“We didn't have one for Friday,'' she said, “because we didn't know if we would win.''
Sgt. Jason Menning of the Omaha Police Department said he uses a state grant to educate Omaha-area teens about safe driving and to place about six extra officers on the streets around football stadiums during the state playoffs.
“Basically we're looking for risky behavior, texting while driving, alcohol, those sorts of things,'' said Menning, who added that his team made 82 presentations at schools and addressed 3,000 teens in 2011.
He agreed that teenage drivers are easily distracted.
“We talk about speeding, wearing those seat belts, texting, putting on makeup,'' Menning said. “We tell them that the biggest responsibility they have is getting them and their passengers to their destination safely.''
Teen drivers make up 6 percent of all motorists in Nebraska, he said, but they're involved in 21 percent of all crashes.
Teen motorists are also involved in 25 percent of all crashes in Nebraska between 9 p.m. and midnight, Menning said. In 60 percent of all teenage fatalities, teen drivers and passengers were not using seat belts.
Lecturing teens about safe driving isn't stressed only at state tourney time, said Capt. Chris Kolb of the Nebraska State Patrol in Grand Island.
Troopers visit schools across the state during the year, Kolb said, driving home the message of using seat belts, no alcohol or drugs and no distractions while driving. He said the State Patrol has been passing out T-shirts at high school football games promoting safe driving.
Troopers display accident-scene photos that illustrate for teens the importance of seat belts, Kolb said. He said rollover accidents — in which seat belts can be particularly effective — are up 50 percent in 2012.
“Hopefully our visits to schools will pay dividends,'' Kolb said.
Fred Zwonechek of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety said his office awards some of the grants to state police agencies.
“We don't have any special initiatives targeting teens and driving to and from any of the state tournament events,'' he said. “However, we do award grants to law enforcement agencies that request additional overtime funding for such events for the expected increase in traffic.''
His office supports efforts to encourage seat belt use among teens and an end to distracted driving.
“It really is a year-round issue,'' Zwonechek said. “Over the years we really haven't experienced significant increases related to the high school tournaments. The highest numbers tend to occur at the beginning and ending of the school year.
“The most important thing is that parents establish their own set of rules for their teenage drivers and hold those teen drivers accountable for following those rules.''
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