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'This is a huge eye-opener': After Gretna crash, how can another tragedy be prevented?

Chances are, lots of families are having tough conversations about underage drinking and driving after Sarpy County authorities revealed this week that the crash in Gretna that killed four teen girls and injured another last month involved both alcohol and speeding.

An investigation found that the 16-year-old driver of the car had a blood alcohol content of .09. The car hit speeds of more than 90 mph on Platteview Road near 180th Street before plunging into a creek and catching fire the night of June 17.

The crash killed Abigail Barth, the 16-year-old driver; 16-year-olds Kloe Odermatt and Addisyn Pfeifer; and 15-year-old Alex Minardi. Roan Brandon, 15, survived.

“Maybe this is a wake-up call for some parents to maybe have that conversation with their child,” said Anna Venditte, an instructor at the Cornhusker Driving School. “I hate to say something like this is a huge eye-opener.”

The five victims of the crash were, from left, Alex Minardi, Addisyn Pfeifer, Kloe Odermatt, Roan Brandon and Abigail Barth. Brandon was the only survivor and has been released from the hospital.

So after the latest tragedy involving teens and alcohol, how do you hammer home the risks to teens and to parents and adults who might be persuaded to buy alcohol for minors or turn a blind eye to drinking?

Safety officials and groups working to combat underage drinking said there is no single solution to a complex problem. But public education campaigns and open, honest conversations between families and peers can make a difference, similar to the ways that organizers tackled other public health issues, like discouraging smoking or promoting seat belt usage.

“(People say) ‘well, kids will be kids,’ ” said Mark Segerstrom, the administrator of the Nebraska Department of Transportation Highway Safety Office. “Well sure, kids will always be kids ... but don’t you want to take any available, potential time you can to talk about safety?”

Data from the Highway Safety Office shows that alcohol-related collisions in Nebraska, among all ages, have generally decreased the past few years; there were 1,661 such crashes in 2017, compared with 1,908 in 2008. Segerstrom credits that to a variety of factors, including campaigns by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, enforcement of DUI laws and the rise of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft that make it easy for adults to request a ride after a night of drinking. (Uber and Lyft drivers are not supposed to pick up unaccompanied passengers under age 18.)

The number of drivers ages 15 to 19 involved in alcohol-related crashes is also dropping in Nebraska. But over the past decade, depending on the year, alcohol has been involved in anywhere from 11% to 33% of fatal crashes with teen drivers at the wheel. Bad weather, speed, texting, inexperience and other drivers behaving badly can also factor into crashes. Unintended injuries, which include traffic collisions, remain the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statistics bear out the importance of the “buckle up” message. In 2016, 12 teen drivers were killed in car crashes in Nebraska. None used a seat belt, Segerstrom said.

Authorities have not said whether any of the girls in the Gretna crash were wearing seat belts, although at least two were ejected from the vehicle, including the sole survivor.

Chris Wagner, the executive director of Project Extra Mile, a group that works to prevent underage drinking and overuse of alcohol, said lecturing teens not to drink and drive isn’t enough. Too often, adults are selling or providing alcohol to minors. In April, a 30-year-old Kwik Shop clerk was convicted of providing alcohol to a 17-year-old Elkhorn High student who drove drunk and died.

Sarpy County officials are still investigating how the Gretna teens procured the alcohol they drank the night of the crash and have asked anyone with information to step forward. Only one of the five girls did not have alcohol in her system, according to the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office.

“Adults simply following the law may have prevented these deaths,” Wagner said in an email. “(In) terms of what works, having good policies and good enforcement in place makes a world of difference. The approach of scaring kids into not drinking has been shown to be an ineffective long-term strategy.”

In states like Illinois, one study found that higher taxes on alcohol resulted in a 26% decrease in fatal crashes involving alcohol, Wagner said, but alcohol tax hikes have not proved popular in the Nebraska Legislature. Another study concluded that the effect on vehicle fatalities is mixed.

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Project Extra Mile also works with law enforcement agencies to conduct regular compliance checks of retailers to ensure that they’re not selling to minors.

Venditte teaches driver’s ed, which touches on the importance of seat belts and the dangers of drunken driving. Police officers, doctors and other experts visit classes to share their experiences, and kids watch what happens to a dummy not wearing a seat belt in a rollover accident.

She also encourages parents and teens to talk about what to do if they or a friend have been drinking and need a ride.

“If you made a bad decision, don’t be scared to call Mom and say, ‘Can you come pick me up,’ ” Venditte said. “Yes, you shouldn’t be drinking, but parents should be proud (you’re) asking for help.”

On social media, several parents said they’ve had similar discussions and have offered to fund an emergency Uber or cab account.

“I talked with my 16 year old daughter about how even one drink could put her little body over the legal limit,” one mother tweeted. “Just one drink is one too many! Her and her 4 friends have discussed this devastating situation many times! It hit very close to home!”

Scared-straight lectures or mock crashes at high schools may be less effective deterrents than having parents and friends model good driving skills and smart decision-making, Segerstrom said. More than 30 Nebraska middle and high schools have adopted a peer-to-peer program called Teens in the Driver Seat that trains students to talk to classmates about safe driving, seat belts and texting.

During prom season, students and parents across the metro area organize elaborate post-prom events to provide a safe alternative to drinking-fueled parties. In years past, members of the Gretna community worked to persuade high schoolers to ditch the traditional “senior party” — an unsupervised drinking bash often held on the last day of school.

Segerstrom advised that parents familiarize themselves with the different regulations surrounding learner’s permits and provisional operator’s permits, which run until a driver’s 18th birthday. That includes restrictions on how late teens can drive and, for the first six months, how many friends they can pile into a car.

Driving records show that Barth, the 16-year-old Gretna driver, had her provisional permit for more than six months, so she was legally allowed to drive with four friends in the car. Still, a car full of teenage passengers increases the risk of a crash.

Parental involvement shouldn’t end the day you hand over the keys. “You still need to constantly talk to your children, go on a drive with your kids, let your kids drive,” Segerstrom said.

And if you’re an adult driving with kids or teens in the car, follow the rules of the road. Don’t grab your phone to quickly glance at a text, always use your seat belt and don’t get behind the wheel after a few beers.

“If you have several drinks, you’re having a fun night, and your kids watch you stumble and get back in the car, what example is that telling me?” Segerstrom said.

Photos: Fatal Sarpy County crash; memorials set up at Gretna High School

Articles
Trump says he's 'not happy' with chant about Omar at rally
'SEND HER BACK!'

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday chided his supporters who chanted "send her back" the previous night when he questioned the loyalty of a Somali-born congresswoman.

The campaign crowd's chant was criticized by Democrats and some Republicans, who warned that it could hurt the GOP in next year's elections.

In a week that has corkscrewed daily with hostile exchanges over race and love of country, Trump also claimed Thursday that he tried to stop the chant at a reelection rally Wednesday night in North Carolina.

"I started speaking really quickly," he said. "I was not happy with it. I disagree with it" and "would certainly try" to stop any similar chant at a future rally.

But video shows that the crowd's "send her back" shouts resounded for 13 seconds as Trump paused his speech and made no attempt to interrupt them.

The taunt's target — Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., — responded Thursday.

"This is what this president and his supporters have turned our country" into, she said as she walked outside the U.S. Capitol. "This is not about me. This is about fighting about what this country truly should be and what it deserves to be."

"I believe he is fascist," she said.

Though taking issue with the chant on Thursday, Trump didn't back away from his criticism of Omar and three other Democratic congresswomen of color.

They have "a big obligation and the obligation is to love your country," he said. "There's such hatred. They have such hatred."

His criticism of Omar at Wednesday's rally included an unfounded accusation that she has voiced pride in al-Qaida.

Trump started the week's tumult by tweeting Sunday that Omar and the other three freshmen could "go back" to their native countries if they were unhappy here. His other targets — all Trump detractors — were Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

All are American citizens, and all but Omar were born in the United States.

Citing Trump's rhetoric, House Democrats said they were discussing arranging security for the four members of Congress.

The Democrat-led House voted Tuesday to condemn Trump's tweets as racist.

The chants at the Trump rally brought scathing criticism from GOP lawmakers as well as from Democrats, though the Republicans did not fault Trump himself.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California declared that the chant has "no place in our party and no place in this country."

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois tweeted that it was "ugly, wrong, & would send chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers. This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union."

It was also the latest demonstration of how Trump's verbal attacks are capable of dominating the news. To many GOP ears, this time the attention wasn't all positive.

Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a Republican who attended Trump's rally, told reporters at the Capitol that the chant "does not need to be our campaign call like we did 'lock her up' last time."

That was a reference to a 2016 campaign mantra that Trump continues to encourage aimed at that year's Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Walker, who called the chant "offensive," was among House GOP leaders who had breakfast Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence at Pence's residence in Washington. Walker said he cautioned Pence that attention to the chant could distract voters next year from the economy and other themes Republicans want to emphasize.

"We don't need to take it that far where we change the narrative of the story," he said he told Pence.

The lawmakers attending agreed the chant was inappropriate and could be a harmful distraction, and Pence concurred, saying he would discuss it with Trump, said a participant who described the conversation on condition of anonymity.


Metro
Powerade, frequent breaks: What outside workers do to beat the heat when it's 'incredibly hot'

As Omaha simmers and people hunker down indoors, a few workers can’t avoid being out in the sun.

Roofers, lawn care workers, lifeguards and others are finding themselves outside on the hottest days of the summer.

Temperatures the past couple of days have been in the upper 90s — Thursday’s peaked at 97 degrees — and the heat index has soared past 100 degrees. More extreme heat is expected Friday, when Omaha is forecast to have a high temperature around 100 degrees and a heat index around 110, if not higher. .

An excessive heat warning, which means that heat stress or heatstroke can occur quickly, is in effect until 7 p.m. Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

In the last few days, more than 25 people have come to metro area emergency rooms for heat-related reasons, according to spokeswomen for CHI Health and the Nebraska Medical Center.

Kayla Thomas of the medical center said most of the cases involved people who don’t have air conditioning in their homes and had trouble breathing or shortness of breath. Only a few were working outside.

A cold front is set to pass through by Sunday, lowering high temperatures into the 80s, according to the weather service.

Until then, those who spend their days working in the sun are doing their best to beat the heat.

Pinnacle Roofing LLC

Brad Cory, owner of Pinnacle Roofing, and his roofers decided to end work about four hours earlier than usual on Thursday, heading home between 3 and 4 p.m. instead of between 7 and 8. He said that’s not uncommon in the heat.

“When I see high 90s, 100s, I get concerned,” Cory said.

On hot days, not necessarily just during excessive heat warnings, Cory requires some employees to cut their workload in half to conserve energy.

Cory’s employees spend a typical workday on rooftops with a break for lunch and maybe another break during the day. But the heat can change that.

With rooftops being about 10 to 20 degrees hotter than ground temperatures, Cory said, he makes a point of sending roofers indoors for a while or home if they’re showing any signs of heat-related illness.

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Kozy Lawn Care Inc.

Austin O’Brien always relies on the same thing to beat the heat: long sleeves.

The Kozy Lawn crew leader covers up and wears his tan Carhartt hat with earflaps to protect his skin from direct sunlight.

“People don’t think about it, but it’s basically portable shade for your body,” he said. “That way you don’t have to worry about the sun beating on your skin all day.”

ADAM COLE/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Austin O'Brien, a crew leader for Kozy Lawn Care, mows a lawn at the corner of Fontenelle Boulevard and Pinkney Street on Thursday.

O’Brien said that in an excessive heat warning, not much changes for him and his crew. They bring ample water to stay hydrated on the job, but their eight-hour workday typically remains the same.

“We kind of just go,” he said.

He and his crew start working on clients’ yards at about 8 a.m. and typically wrap up about 4 p.m., he said. He said his crew has gotten used to the heat.

“It always seems like there’s one week out of the summer that’s incredibly hot,” he said.

O’Brien said crew members haven’t experienced any heat-related illness, but he does worry about the possibility of skin cancer. His hat and long sleeves are meant for protection.

“I’m outside basically all the time when it’s sunny, so I might as well protect this skin while I have it,” he said.

Omaha Parks and Recreation Department

It can be hard for lifeguards, as well as camp counselors, to escape the sun, but the Omaha Parks and Recreation Department has procedures in place to make sure that employees stay as cool as possible.

That means keeping lifeguards indoors whenever they’re not on chair duty, said Tracy Stratman, Parks and Recreation’s recreation manager. During times of excessive heat, all guard chairs are required to have their umbrellas up to provide shade. The normal 15-to-20 minute outdoor, in-chair rotation is trimmed to about 10 to 15 minutes, she said.

Camp counselors are outdoors “rain or shine,” Stratman said, so camp schedules are restructured to provide more shade time, Popsicle breaks, water play and swim time. Hikes also are shortened, she said.

While lifeguards are looking out for poolgoers, Parks and Recreation has aquatic supervisors in place to keep an eye on lifeguards for heat-related problems.

Supervisors drive from pool to pool providing drinks like Powerade, and lifeguards on “down” (or indoor) rotations offer guards who are in chairs quick breaks or water to soak their feet.

World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.

Omaha's top 10 longest stretches of temperatures 100 degrees or higher

Articles
Heat overtakes more than half of U.S.
Dangerous weather prompts warnings, advisories for 154 million people from Plains to parts of East Coast

A potentially deadly combination of heat and humidity has engulfed more than half the country, with air temperatures climbing toward the century mark everywhere from the Plains to the Mississippi River Valley and eastward to the heavily populated Washington-to-Boston corridor.

"A widespread and dangerous heat wave is building in the central and eastern U.S.," the National Weather Service said Thursday.

Heat advisories and warnings are in effect for 154 million people. In many big cities, the heat index — how hot it feels factoring in the humidity — is forecast to peak around 110 degrees between Friday and Sunday. The actual air temperature is expected to reach at least 95 degrees for more than half the population of the lower 48 states over the next several days.

The heat builds on a warm June worldwide. Meteorologists say Earth sizzled to its hottest June on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said June averaged 60.6 degrees across the U.S., about 1.7 degrees higher than the 20th century average. Scientists say the record heat is what is expected with manmade climate change.

Hurricane Barry's remnants have added to the misery by bringing a surge of sultry, swamp like tropical moisture to much of the heat wave zone. Such extremely humid conditions are expected to continue through Sunday, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard.

The most memorable aspect of this heat wave will be the lack of relief at night, especially in big cities, which tend to act as "heat islands." The effect prevents temperatures from falling quickly overnight.

According to the weather service, overnight low temperatures will be in the mid to upper 70s to 80 degrees. The weather service projects that 123 records for the warmest low temperature will be tied or broken across the country through the weekend, as readings remain high overnight. Such high overnight lows deprive the body of a break from heat stress.