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Putting the Kibosh on Car Surfing

There is no end, apparently, to the things teenagers will do that you wish they'd have the good sense not to do.

The most recent edition of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) highlights a phenomenon known as "car surfing" and suggests parents talk with their teens about the practice.

The report defines "car surfing" as "a term introduced in the mid-1980s to describe a thrill-seeking activity that involves riding on the exterior of a moving motor vehicle while it is being driven by another person." A review of newspaper accounts from across the country between 1990 and August 2008 yielded the first nation-wide picture of the phenomenon, to which 58 deaths and 41 nonfatal injuries have been attributed for that period.

These figures don't include accidents in which people are being towed by vehicles while riding bikes or skate boards or where they were "ghost riding," standing or dancing outside a moving vehicle with the intent of getting back in while the car's still moving.

The review found that 70 percent of those hurt or killed by car surfing were male; 69 percent were between ages 15 and 19. It's interesting to see that drugs/alcohol were considered contributing factors in only about 10 percent of incidents resulting in death or serious injury.

Many accidents occurred at low speeds; sudden swerving or braking seemed to be what caused many car surfers to be flung from the top of the car; head and neck injuries were involved in many of the deaths.

While most (39) reported car-surfing accidents occurred in the western U.S., the South (which in the CDC report includes Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia) came in a close second with 35 reported cases.

The report says car surfing is most common in the summer, peaking in August. But a glance at the month-by-month chart reveals that October's right in line with June, and November's right there with July, in terms of car-surfing activity.

So that makes now a good time to talk with our teens about car surfing, right? And I suppose I'll mention it to my kids, though they're not quite yet in the target age group.

But what to do about all the other dumb things kids do that we don't think to warn them about in advance? Is a blanket warning -- don't be reckless -- good enough?

And what about our responsibility to intervene when we see other people's kids doing stupid things? I have on several occasions seen teenagers -- not my kids' friends -- car surfing and being towed on skateboards behind cars, even in the school parking lot, not long after school has let out! I never have seen an adult tell them to knock it off. And, to my shame, I haven't mustered the guts to do so, either. (Though I have no doubt that I would have had it been kids I actually knew.)

It's a big question: Do we tell teenagers we see smoking to quit while they can? (I don't.) Do we holler at teens who are driving too fast to slow the heck down? (I do, usually while shaking my fist, hoping they'll catch a glimpse in their rear-view mirror.)

Or do we just acknowledge that we can't save every kid from every potential danger, cross our fingers, and hope for the best?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 20, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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Explain the physics of it (E=.5v^2)and let nature take care of the rest. Male teenagers are risk-seeking animals and they will crack their heads one way or another. Who among us hasn't?

Posted by: Darwin | October 20, 2008 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Car surfing is just natural selection in action, aided and abetted by rules that allow 16-year-olds to procure driver's licenses. Teenagers, especially boys, are risk takers, simply because their brains haven't yet matured past that stage.

Although in fairness, taking away cars wouldn't stop the stupidity. Here in New York City, we have automated announcements on the subway warning that riding on the outside of the subway car (aka subway surfing) is dangerous. Gee, ya think? But young men have died doing it.

Posted by: BxNY | October 20, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

58 deaths in 18 years is 3.2 deaths per year. I'd be willing to bet that more kids die from complications from piercings or tattoos than from "car surfing." Not to say it's not stupid, but there are probably more efficient ways to spend our time and worry...

Posted by: With Darwin | October 20, 2008 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Car-surfing is not like smoking. It is illegal. Any adult who sees this behavior taking place has an obligation to either put a stop to it or call the police. I personally know someone who was the driver in a car-surfing accident 30 years ago which left his friend paralyzed for life. This stupid accident ruined two lives that day...

Posted by: Steve | October 20, 2008 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Michael J. Fox and his friend car-surfed in the '80s movie Teen Wolf. I think it may be an underground activity that is always happening in very small numbers.

Posted by: Joe | October 20, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

"The review found that 70 percent of those hurt or killed by car surfing were male."

I'm shocked that the 70% figure isn't more like 95%. Who are these girls who go car surfing? They must be up there with their boyfriends.

Posted by: Tom T. | October 20, 2008 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Wow, I was wondering how long it would take for someone to mention "Teen Wolf." :) Thanks, Joe!

Posted by: nobody12345 | October 20, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Energy = .5mv^2
without the mass, you haven't got energy.

Posted by: jp | October 20, 2008 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Darwin Awards, Junior Division.

Although I must admit to doing this once, when my Uncle Pete got hammered and let us all ride on the roof of his little Datsun wagon on a beer run. At least it had roof rails we could hang on to.

Ahhhh...good times.

Posted by: Tom3 | October 20, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Cool article, my weekend plans are set now!

Posted by: PLUMBER BUBBA | October 20, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I both L surfed (Chicago term for subway surfing). Now they ticket people for moving between L cars while the train is moving. That's probably a good idea.

Posted by: Cheryl | October 20, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Young men will always invent physical risks. Perhaps we should return the draft so they will join the Army, get some training and take some real risk serving their country.

Posted by: Bill | October 20, 2008 6:18 PM | Report abuse

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