October 28, 2013

Teen’s fatal crash was third in seven years on Hiram’s River Road

Like the other two people who died in those years on the same stretch of road, Alexia Valente, 16, was not wearing a seat belt.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Alexia Valente’s death Oct. 16 added to a tragic statistic for a single short length of bumpy pavement.

Valente died after losing control of her 1998 Nissan Sentra on River Road in Hiram. Her death was the third fatality in seven years on the same stretch of road. In each case, the person who died was not wearing a seat belt.

“We know wearing seat belts is the single most effective way to reduce injury or the chance of being killed in a car crash,” said Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA of Northern New England. “We also know the teen population are overrepresented in unbelted crashes.”

Valente, 16, lived just down the road from the crash site, at a bend in the road as it crested a knoll. She was a junior at Sacopee Valley High School and her death hit the school and the community heavily.

Her two passengers suffered serious injuries, including head and back injuries, and were taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland for treatment but have since been released.

Six years earlier, in May 2006, a high school senior, Hayley Verrill, 17, died when the car she was driving went off the road less than a tenth of a mile away.

A few months later, Iris George, 35, died when the Pontiac she was driving collided with a car driven by a 17-year-old. Police at the time said the cars met at the crest of the hill and because of the narrowness of the road, both were driving over the centerline. George’s 19-year-old passenger, who was wearing a seat belt, received minor injuries.

Mainers’ rate of seat belt usage is about 82 percent, according to a 2011 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, slightly below the national average of 84 percent. Washington state has the highest seatbelt use at 97.5 percent, followed by California and Oregon at 96.6 percent.

Nationally, seat belt use by teens and young adults is several percentage points lower than any other group, according to safety administration data.

In Maine, half of the 164 people who died in car crashes in 2012 were not wearing seat belts, and 30 of those were between the ages of 16 and 24. That is a much higher rate than the percentage of licensed drivers in that age group – 13 percent.

The statistics are no surprise to Community Resource Officer Eric Greenleaf of Scarborough.

“In my career, over 23 years, I’ve never been to a fatal accident where somebody’s been belted,” he said.

Greenleaf’s responsibilities include overseeing the Seat Belt Convincer, a sled-like device he brings to school and public safety fairs that allows people to experience the impact of a crash in a controlled environment. Even with the incline set to simulate a 10- to 12-mph impact, many young people change their minds about not using seat belts after experiencing the simulator’s forceful, abrupt stop, he said.

Greenleaf said he doesn’t know whether those lessons translate into better seat belt usage among young adults.

It’s not clear whether Valente would have survived her crash had she been wearing a seat belt. Valente had had her license for just seven months when she was driving home from a school soccer game and lost control on River Road. Police say she was going too fast for the road, which has a 35 mph speed limit at that spot, although they haven’t calculated her precise speed yet. Her inexperience may have led her to overcorrect, allowing the car to spin 180 degrees, slide off the right side of the road and smash into a tree on the driver’s side.

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