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On March 25, 2008, the San Jose Mercury News featured the grief of Jo and Martin Harding, whose son Maxwell, age 18, was killed as a passenger in a crash at outrageous speeds. The story, “Maxwell’s Pledge Would Urge Teens to Drive Safely,” brought back all the grief and anguish my clients Puja and Mala Batra have suffered as a result of Erik Satterstrom, age 19, killing their parents in that crash as they enjoyed an evening walk. Unfortunately, the Maxwell’s Pledge story does tell the whole truth about this crash and mischaracterizes the facts. The Hardings are promoting a statewide plan to have teenagers pledge in their son’s name to be safe drivers. The pledge was unveiled with a page one, above the fold, 8″ x 10″ close-up color photo of Mr. and Mrs. Harding posed looking down the barrel of the camera with sorrowful, grief-glazed eyes.

Everyone sympathizes with the pain of a teenager’s wrongful death and the parents’ need to wring some lasting good out of their son’s death, but putting the pathos to one side and dealing with this tragedy honestly, “Maxwell’s Pledge” is a whitewash.

It ignores and glosses over the harsh fact that no teenager should follow Maxwell’s lead, let alone take a pledge in his name.

Maxwell Harding voluntarily rode with a driver whom he must have known and had to have known as an extremely dangerous driver.
Maxwell Harding had known Erik Satterstrom for a long time. He was Erik’s “best friend.”  They planned to be roommates at Cal-Poly. They knew each other well. Satterstrom had just finished dinner with the Harding family at the Hardings’ home ten minutes before their deaths. With such a close relationship, it is highly probable that Maxwell knew Satterstrom was a reckless speeder. It is worse, but you wouldn’t know it from what the Hardings said or the Mercury printed. Maxwell Harding most probably also knew the details of Satterstrom’ traffic tickets and speeding conviction that are detailed below.

When the news fails to report uncomfortable facts out of sympathy, the public is denied information to protect themselves and their families from harm. The truth is that the pain suffered by Puja and Mala Batra, Jo and Martin Harding and Joy and Norman Satterstrom cannot be made any worse by telling the full story.

Against this backdrop, the pledge refuses to acknowledge the reality of teenage speeding, dying and killing and what it takes to change that culture. The empty platitudes of the pledge, which have a hollow ring, can be read below, along with a much stronger Alexander Pledge that is honest, hard hitting and does not cover over the probability that Maxwell Harding made a very wrong choice to ride with a very reckless driver.

On July 23, 2007, Uma and Inder Batra had been married for 38 years. He was a renowned physicist and she a dietician. The parents of two stunning daughters, graduates of UC Berkeley, the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Business, had just learned that they were to be grandparents.

As the Batras strolled along Graystone, Satterstrom’s car left the roadway, inflicted terminal personal injuries, collided with a tree and burst into a fireball. The pre-autopsy photographs are the most gruesome I have seen in three decades of personal injury and wrongful death law practice.

Erik Satterstrom was notorious for high speed, risky driving. Erik didn’t simply “lose control” of his car, as the Mercury reported on March 25, 2008. He drove at 80 mph on a two-lane road and careened out of control, killing his passenger and two innocent pedestrians. If he had survived the crash, Satterstrom would have been prosecuted for killing three people.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that 5,000 teenagers are killed every year. Once every 15 seconds a person in the U.S. suffers brain damage, primarily in a car crash. A culture of rebellious, high speed driving and dying must be ended.

Last July‘s crash on Graystone Lane did not surprise people who knew Satterstrom.

On July 25, 2007, immediately after these deaths, the Mercury quoted Erik’s friend saying, “he was always taking risks, and he was a fast driver … who thought he was invincible.” Erik’s co-workers at Orchard Supply Hardware said he “had a devilish side. And it came out when he got behind the wheel of his 350Z. ‘He’s drove really fast out of our parking lot…’ ” according to the Mercury.

Many parents of students with good grades are confident their children do not drive so irresponsibly. Think again. Satterstrom was a straight A student from a Christian high school who was immensely popular and entertaining. He was also, by choice, out of control and that made him a killer behind the wheel.

On March 15, 2007 Satterstrom purchased a 2003 Nissan 350Z. He was living at his parents’ home and planning on returning to college with Maxwell Harding as his roommate. The car was registered in Erik’s name as the sole owner at his parents’ address. It is legal to do so. That’s how to avoid legal liability once a child turns 18; when an adult child owns the car, parents are no longer exposed to a claim of negligently entrusting a vehicle to a dangerous driver.

Mr. and Mrs. Satterstrom have confirmed under oath that Erik was the sole owner of the 350Z. The Satterstrom’s have no legal liability or responsibility for their adult son’s driving and to their credit they made sure that Erik had substantial liability coverage as a separate insured under the family Allstate policy. Many families in this position buy a minimum $15,000/$30,000 policy because a teenage adult has no assets to protect and is otherwise uncollectible. The Satterstroms did not, but the coverage in place does not come close to compensating the Batra daughters and the Hardings for these wrongful deaths.

There is no doubt Satterstrom was reckless behind the wheel before this crash proved it.

On March 22, 2007, one week after purchasing the 350Z, Satterstrom was cited for speeding.

Three weeks later, on April 13, 2007 he was cited for running a red light.

On July 17, 2007, less than a week before he killed himself and three others, Satterstrom was convicted in Traffic Court of the speeding charge of March 22nd. The conviction didn’t slow him down.

“Maxwell’s Pledge” includes a promise that “while driving, and if requested to do so by any of my passengers, I will immediately take steps to reduce my speed.” That implies that Maxwell Harding “requested” Erik Satterstrom “reduce” his speed before the crash. That’s something no one will ever know.

On the other hand, the pledge fails to acknowledge that you are putting your life into someone else’s hands when you get into a car, as Maxwell did, with a driver who is well known as a risk taker, with a devilish side, who drove really fast.

The Hardings’ pledge in basically restating the law misses the point. Teenagers must do more that promise to “be a safe and responsible driver at all times while driving on public streets and highways.” That is a minimum legal obligation that everyone has and it doesn’t end on public streets and highways. It applies in parking lots and private roads. It is just as easy to kill someone there as on a public thoroughfare.

Everyone must have zero tolerance for dangerous drivers, if our driving culture is to change.

Zero tolerance means never riding with anyone who has ever driven dangerously and teenagers must warn everyone they know as soon as they learn someone is a dangerous driver.

Until teenagers start identifying outrageous drivers to their friends and refuse to ride with drivers who speed, just as Maxwell Harding should have refused to put himself at risk by riding with Erik Satterstrom, deaths will continue, no matter how many take this pledge.

Until teenagers no longer tolerate reckless drivers and admit the high probability that reckless driving will kill innocent people, nothing will change.

Parents also must take a pledge to get their heads out of the sand and use electronic monitoring to provide responsible adult supervision for their child drivers. All teenagers speed, even straight A students like Erik Satterstrom. And any teenager can get a car up to 80 mph when Mom and Dad are not around.

Cars driven by teenagers should have a GPS system, available for $500 that tracks location and speed, if the occupants are wearing their seatbelts and reports to a responsible adult.

Today with some systems parents can set a “geo fence” for the family car and receive a phone call or an email if it travels outside the electronic boundary. Insurance companies are offering discounts for families using technology that sets a car’s maximum speed, how far it can travel and a curfew, which if violated results in a call or email to parents.

Better yet, set the system so that once the car exceeds the speed limit, the next time it is turned off and placed in park, it is automatically disabled and shutdown until Mom or Dad unlock it.

Erik Satterstrom did not become a speeder by turning 18. He was born December 29, 1987 and received his provisional driver’s license on March 9, 2004 at age 16.2 years. Imagine how his driver training and early driving experiences would have been impacted if his family had installed a GPS system at the outset. If the past is prologue to the future, there is little doubt that Erik Satterstrom was a reckless driver well before the 350Z was purchased in March 2007 and that Erik was the last teenager who should have a muscle car. Hindsight is perfect, but one cannot help but imagine what would have unfolded if his early speeding had been documented in detail for his parents by a GPS system.

Parents who are providing cars to teenagers must install a GPS system to monitor their teenage driver to prevent them from killing themselves and inflicting on their families the pain that Satterstrom inflicted on Mala and Puja Batra, Jo and Martin Harding and his own parents. A GPS system belongs in every teenager’s car, not just your neighbor’s or the car driven by someone else’s child. Parents who do not have GPS system installed simply do not know what their children are doing.

When parents and teenagers publicly accuse reckless drivers that “driving like that you are going to kill someone” and start respecting their own lives and the love their parents have for them by not riding with reckless drivers, the culture will change and the carnage will end. Until that happens parents should install GPS systems and hold teenagers strictly responsible before they find their child in an ICU or are forced to attend a funeral.

Over three decades I have seen scores of severe personal injures and unnecessary wrongful deaths and have represented grieving families for whom the pain will never end. Jo and Martin Harding merit our encouragement for doing something, as imperfect as it is. It is sad that it took the massive pain of their son’s death to move them to take this action and it is hoped that this pledge will evolve into a meaningful program. That is why this article was written.

For decades California trial lawyers, through Consumer Attorneys of California, along with every law enforcement agency in the state, have advocated for auto safety, seatbelts, ABS brakes, airbags, restrictions on teenage drivers, helmets for bicyclists and mandatory driver education because we know the tragedy of drivers, especially teenagers, killing themselves and others. We welcome everyone to join with us in changing the culture of carnage. There is much more to be done.

For an excellent article on GPS systems to install in the family car see two articles in the New York Times of November 3, 2007: “Peace of Mind When They Ask to Borrow the Car”. featuring CarChip made by Davis Instruments in Hayward, California and “For Teenage Drivers, Ever Present Parents.”

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Richard Alexander

The Alexander Pledge for Teenagers and their Parents

On my honor I pledge to myself, each member of my family and to each of my friends that:

At all times, I will, without fail, be a safe, responsible and model driver because I know that a car can be a lethal weapon.

I will not speed or drive recklessly. I take full responsibility for my safety because many people love me.

I take full responsibility for the safety of my passengers, other drivers and pedestrians because I expect to be treated with the same level of respect. I understand that once a crash begins no one can unring the bell of disaster.

I know that drivers injure and kill themselves and their friends because they don’t pay attention or the joy and excitement of driving wipes out their common sense.

I have zero tolerance for drivers who speed and place others at risk of injury and death. I will not ride with a person who is reckless driver or who is a speeder.

I promise to publicly admonish reckless drivers: “driving like that you are going to kill someone and it isn’t going to be me. If you want to be my friend, you can never drive like that again.”

I will withhold friendship from reckless drivers because they truly are not my friends when they treat my life with contempt and expose me to the risk of injury and death.

I promise to tell all my friends never to ride with anyone that I know is a reckless driver so they can protect themselves from injury and death.

I will provide responsible supervision for new drivers in my family, including electronic monitoring, so that everyone in my family will have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that everyone is driving safely and can be expected to return home uninjured, alive and happy. As a family we owe that to the people we love and value most.

Maxwell’s Pledge for Teenagers Doesn’t Go Far Enough

I solemnly pledge to be a safe and responsible driver at all times while driving on public streets and highways.

I recognize and accept that while driving any vehicle I am accountable for the lives and well-being of other people. This includes responsibility for my passengers, pedestrians and others sharing the same road.

While driving, and if requested to do so by any of my passengers, I will immediately take steps to reduce my speed or to implement whatever action is necessary to ensure the comfort and safety of my passengers.