Two Placer County schools on Monday mourned the loss of a pair of teenage girls who died in an SUV rollover crash on Sunday near Auburn.
While there are questions about whether the 17-year-old male driver was traveling faster than the legal limit, there is no question about whether the other four teenagers should have been in the sport-utility vehicle, said CHP spokesman David Martinez.
"You have a minor with a provisional license," Martinez said. "This kid should not have had passengers." He said the department hasn't decided whether to recommend prosecution of the driver.
The two girls fatally injured were identified as Morgan Helman, a 17-year-old Del Oro High School student, and Vivian Connor, 13, of Newcastle. The driver and other passengers who suffered minor injuries were not identified. One was taken to a hospital and the other two, including the driver, were released to their parents.
Neither of the fatally injured girls was wearing a seat belt, Martinez said. They were riding in the back seat, and there weren't enough seat belts for all the passengers, he said.
The accident occurred around 7:30 p.m. Sunday as the white Chevy Tahoe traveled southbound on Auburn-Folsom Road just north of Less Lane.
Early reports had the vehicle traveling at least 45 mph on the twisty road. According to Martinez, the driver made an unsafe turning movement, lost control and struck a guardrail. The SUV then went over the guardrail and hit a fence before overturning onto its right side.
The two girls were partially ejected and suffered fatal injuries.
Under California's provisional licensing law, it was illegal for the 17-year-old driver to be transporting any passengers under age 20. The law, a part of the state's Graduated Licensing Program, has been in place since 1998. It is based on national studies showing that first-year drivers are more likely to be involved in serious and fatal crashes if another teenager is in the vehicle. Studies showed that the more teenagers in a car, the more dangerous the driving situation.
"It's a huge distraction," said Jessica Gonzalez of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. "As a new driver, there is so much to pay attention to on the road laws to learn that having others in the car who could distract you is just dangerous."
Del Oro High School senior Cecelia Campbell said it was a solemn day on campus as students absorbed the news.
"It kind of just proves why they have that rule in place," said Campbell, the senior class president.
State and national studies have shown that provisional licensing programs, including prohibiting first-year teenage drivers from being on the road between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., reduce crashes.
But the law is only minimally enforced in California and other states. Under state statutes, law enforcement officers are not allowed to pull over a car with teenagers in it "for the sole purpose of determining whether the driver" is in violation of the provisional licensing law. Officers must have some other reason for making the stop.
In 2011, about 4,900 teens were convicted for violations of the nighttime and passenger restriction components of the California law, far fewer than the believed number of teens who violate the law.
As a result, state safety officials say the policing duties are largely up to parents and the teenagers themselves but that situation has led to a high level of non-compliance, officials said. A state DMV study in 2003 found that only 52 percent of first-year teen drivers under age 18 complied with the law.
"We find it very important that parents be involved," the DMV's Gonzalez said, to help "make sure their son or daughter is becoming a safe driver."
Safety officials said the crash is also a reminder of the importance of seat-belt use. Ironically, new data show that more teenage drivers and passengers than ever in California wore seat belts in 2012. Seat-belt use among teens has now reached 95 percent.
With many details of the accident still unclear, Kathleen Daugherty, principal/superintendent of the tiny Newcastle School District, said the focus of teachers and students Monday was on the bright, beautiful girl they lost.
Connor was an eighth-grader at Newcastle Elementary, which she had attended since kindergarten. She had recently returned from a school outing to see the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C.
"She was a delight," Daugherty said. "She was just very easy to be around."
Both Placer County schools brought in Sheriff's Department grief counselors and other volunteers to help students process the news.
"This is a very sad time for us," Daugherty said. "We are all mourning her loss. We are a tight little community, and this is very sad for all of us."
Helman grew up in Carmichael, but quickly made an impression at her new school when she arrived about a year ago. She was active in the anti-bullying club.
"It's a really big loss for the school," said class president Campbell.
Helman was also active in Bayside Church's youth program, where teaching pastor Curt Harlow called her a gregarious person that brought people together.
"Morgan just had a way of making people feel connected," Harlow said.