To help cope with their grief, Ashley Eyler’s family members made a list of things they were thankful for after her death last summer.
The list includes the fact that when her car went down a steep embankment near the family’s home in Ladiesburg, the slight 18-year-old with stunning blue eyes and dyed-black hair was on her way to a college class.
Ashley died Aug. 23, 2011. Her death mirrors national statistics that show the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day is the most dangerous time of the year for teen drivers.
Ashley’s family finds it symbolic she died on her way to class. Ashley always pursued her goals, they said. She hadn’t been out partying, which they feel would have drawn criticism from the community and tarnished her memory.
The family is happy that Ashley’s outgoing and spontaneous personality helped her live a full life. She may have just graduated from Walkersville High School a few months before the crash, but while she was alive, friends and fun were her constant companions.
Ashley’s family still wishes that things could have gone differently for her.
“She didn’t have her seat belt on,” her mother, Sheryl, said on a recent weekday afternoon. “I don’t know if that would have made a difference in her case, but who knows?”
Sheryl, along with two of Ashley’s three sisters, her brother-in-law, her best friend and her nephew, sat on a picnic table bench at the site of the crash, which has been transformed into a roadside tribute to her.
The small wooded clearing where the crash occurred, near Good Intent Road and Md. 194, is now home to a small garden, a large wooden cross with her name carved into it and a bench swing, among other decorations.
Written on the picnic table boards in purple and green permanent marker are messages from her friends and family members, who go there to remember the girl with the heartwarming laugh and strong personality who loved being the center of attention — so much so that she kept her mother in labor for 22 hours so she could be the first baby born at Frederick Memorial Hospital in 1993, Sheryl joked.
Ashley’s family said the surviving passenger later told them that she overcorrected after the wheel of her red Honda Civic went off the right side of the road in the middle of a sunny August day. She lost control of the car, and it went down a long, steep embankment, hit several trees on the way down and overturned.
Fatal crashes like Ashley’s are common. According to Cathy Gillen, leader of the Maryland Safe Teen Driver Coalition, they are dramatically more common in the summer months.
Another Walkersville High student, 16-year-old Jacqueline Shayuth, died in an automobile crash that occurred about a month before Ashley’s.
Gillen said the national average number of teen fatalities due to automobile accidents is 363 per month when school is in session. In the summer, that number increases to 422.
The majority of those are “lane departure crashes,” meaning only one vehicle is involved, Gillen said. The crash risk increases when a teen driver has a passenger.
“Just having one passenger increases the risk by as much as 48 percent,” she said. “It grows to as much as 307 percent with three or more passengers.”
Ashley had one passenger in her car, and Shayuth was one of two passengers in the vehicle she was in. Both were single-vehicle crashes.
“It’s all about exposure,” Gillen said. “Obviously (in the summer) they’re not in school for eight hours a day.”
According to her, that means teens are doing more joy riding than “purposeful driving,” which means traveling to school, work or after-school activities.
“When they’re joy riding they tend to have more passengers in the car … and kids tend to bow to more peer pressure when there are other kids in the car.”
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national nonprofit representing state highway safety offices, 23 states, including Maryland, reported an increased number of teen fatalities in the first six months of 2011 compared with 2010. Nationally, there was an 11 percent increase in teen driving deaths for that time period compared with the same one in 2010.
Gillen said the best way to prevent fatalities is one-on-one conversations between parents and children.
“Parents really are key. Your child may go through a driver’s education class, but that doesn’t mean that the learning is over,” she said.
She suggests that parents and teens draft a contract that outlines the parents’ expectations for their child’s vehicle use. Even if state law doesn’t limit the number of passengers that can be in the car at a time or define a driving curfew, parents can make their own rules.
“You can’t be their friend, you’ve got to be their parent,” Sheryl said. “Don’t be in denial about your kids. … Realize that your babies are not perfect.”
Alcohol wasn’t a factor in Ashley’s crash, but it is in many, she said.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teenagers are far more likely to die in an alcohol-related accident than are members of other age groups, even though they are too young to buy alcohol legally.
Teaching new drivers
Ashley’s family members said they have done a lot of thinking about how new drivers can get in trouble on the road since her crash.
Wayne Kauffman, her brother-in-law, said he would encourage parents to take the time to go beyond driver’s education and teach their kids about defensive driving, like how to prevent hydroplaning and how not to overcorrect if your car leaves the road, like Ashley’s did. His wife, Ashley’s older sister, agreed.
“Take it a step further,” Marlaina Kauffman said. “Teach them about those situations you can’t plan for.”
An even simpler piece of advice parents can offer their children? “You’re not going to get there any faster by getting in an accident.”
Samantha Lawson, Ashley’s best friend, said that’s something that modern, busy teenagers need to hear sometimes.
“Take your time,” Lawson said. “Don’t rush.”
“And don’t think it can’t happen to you,” Marlaina said.
Ashley is greatly missed by her family, her friends and her community, but Sheryl said she hopes the crash has been a lesson to other teenagers in the area.
“As sad as it is, it has been a wake-up for some of the kids,” she said. She was always thinking of others while she was alive, and now, “she is still doing something for them from heaven.”