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Wrecks have killed 15 Aggies in 2005

Wrecks have killed 15 Aggies in 2005

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A&M DEATHS

Fifteen A&M students have died in traffic accidents during 2005. The majority were undergraduate men, though three were women and four were graduate students. Their deaths compelled university President Robert Gates to e-mail all students before the winter holiday break, imploring them to drive safely.

• Kristy Lynn Barr

• Christopher Breeding

• Dan Domas

• Michael Harrison Gamble

• Andrea Gent

• Jana Ileme Joseph

• James Todd Martin

• William Minor

• Brian Christopher Nadeau

• James Luke Patton

• Soyuz Priyadarsan

• Adam Tilton

• Jonathan Clinton Wasser

• Luke Whiting

• Ryan Wolk

Source: Texas A&M

University

Nearly 11 months ago, Aggie sophomore Andrea Gent stopped at the intersection of U.S. 290 and Texas 21, and then started her left turn toward College Station.

It was a bright, brisk Sunday afternoon on the back end of a weekend trip to visit friends in Austin, and she was returning to Texas A&M University for her first full week of classes in the spring semester.

But she never made it back.

She didn't get to finish her sophomore year. She didn't get to wear her senior ring. And she didn't get to become a third-generation A&M graduate.

Gent's plan to finish at A&M, her goal to go on to law school, and ultimately, her life, were cut short Jan. 23 when a sport-utility vehicle headed west on Texas 21 slammed into the driver's door of her Saturn Ion, sending the Houston 19-year-old into a coma. She died a week later.

Gent was dearly loved by her family and friends - who numbered about 1,000 at her memorial service in north Houston. Folks flocked from all over Texas and beyond to visit her while she lay in a coma at Austin's Brackenridge Hospital. She was an excellent student, a loyal friend and a good daughter.

But Gent is only one piece of a tragic puzzle, one smile in a collage of faces of 15 Aggie students who have died in traffic accidents during 2005.

"It really is painful to us when we lose a student," A&M President Robert Gates said. "They're a part of our family."

A plea for safe driving

In just over a week during late November, five students were killed in auto accidents. Soon after, Gates sent an e-mail to all Aggie students pleading with them to drive safely during the winter break.

"Please do your part to ensure that the upcoming travel associated with the winter break is safe and uneventful," he wrote. "Please honor the memory of these fallen Aggies by avoiding driving a motor vehicle when tired, stressed, or hurried."

Fatigue and stress play a much larger role in traffic accidents among young drivers than drunken driving, said Russell Henk, a research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute.

"A really common misconception for young drivers is that it's all about drinking and driving," he said.

For college-age drivers, about 25 percent of traffic-related deaths involve alcohol.

"If that's all we talk about, we're still missing 75 percent of the issue," Henk said.

Young drivers tend to wear seat belts less and speed more, he said.

But for Andrea Gent, it wasn't an issue of speeding (she had been stopped at an intersection). And it wasn't not wearing a seat belt (she had hers on).

According to her father, David Gent, it was a matter of ill fate.

"There is some measure of bad luck because a fraction of an inch one way or another, her car would have been spun around, and the impact could have been less, instead of straight into the driver's side," he said.

Was she tired, or was she lacking alertness because she'd made the trip so many times before?

Either may have been a factor, her parents said. All they know is that she was in high spirits when she left her friends in Austin.

"I have had other people tell me they've known of fatalities at that location," David Gent said. "And lots of people have told me they've been involved with close calls at that intersection. ... It's very difficult to see vehicles coming from the left. They're hidden by the shape of the land and the curvature of the road."

#1 killer of teens

Others, such as sophomore Joseph Dan Domas, also were victims of bad timing. He and three other Aggies were headed to Lufkin to see their old high school play a football game when a car traveling the opposite direction crossed into oncoming traffic. Only Domas, 19, died.

Still others were, perhaps, too fatigued to be making the long-distance drives that killed them.

Henk, who primarily studies high-school-age drivers, said teenage traffic deaths continue to rise, though auto-accident fatalities overall have decreased in recent years.

"It's a big problem," he said. "On a national scale, we lose over 6,000 teenagers each year."

And Texas alone loses about 500 teens annually in traffic accidents.

"We're a leader in a way that we don't want to be a leader," Henk said. "We lead the nation in traffic fatalities for that age group."

Across the country, nothing kills teenagers more than traffic accidents.

"This is the No. 1 killer of teens," he said. "Forty-four percent of teen deaths are due to traffic crashes."

Across Texas in 2001, there were 1,240 traffic-related deaths of people ages 18 to 25. More 19-year-olds died than people from any other age group, according to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

While Henk doesn't have hard evidence to prove it, he thinks that electronic gadgets may be at least partly to blame for the increase in young driver deaths.

No longer are young people just chatting on cell phones while driving, he said. Those phones now are also being used for text messaging, which requires users to read what they type on the phone's screen. And DVD players have made their way into cars as well.

But even changing CDs, flipping radio stations and having friends riding along can cause a lack of concentration for young drivers and, in turn, cause accidents, Henk said.

Enduring loss

Joyce Gent, Andrea's mother, said her daughter had been to the funerals of several high school peers who died in traffic accidents. The Gents lived during the Vietnam War and knew many servicemen who died. But the couple didn't attend nearly as many funerals as their daughter had, they said.

"The students - they just have to be careful," Joyce Gent said. "It's something that parents have been saying for years. We say be careful. Be safe. Watch when you're heading out. There's not anything you can do as a parent. You've just got to trust that they're going to be OK. But it doesn't work all the time."

Gates, a former director of the CIA, said nothing compares to the loss suffered by the families of those 15 Aggies.

"I've received home the bodies of people I sent on missions at the CIA," he said. "The pain associated with that pales in comparison with the pain felt when a family loses a college student."

The Gent family was surrounded by others who helped them endure their loss, David Gent said. And they find some solace in the good brought by their daughter's death. As an organ donor, Andrea Gent helped six others keep life. And there's been an outpouring of donations for memorial scholarships, one of which is a President's Endowed Scholarship.

But there's no way to fix the hole left in their life.

"It's difficult for us to feel normal, so we just try to keep going every day, and we hope that we can build some new traditions that will allow us to cope," David Gent said. "We don't really feel that we can heal."

For the Gents, the idea of normalcy is gone. The idea of moving on isn't an option. All they can do is cope.

• Josh Baugh's e-mail address is josh.baugh@theeagle.com.

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