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Teen Driving Death Rate Soaring

Over the last month in the Washington D.C. area, 13 teenagers have died in car accidents.

Authorities are at a loss to explain the disturbing trend, but it mirrors one going on nationwide.

In Damascus, Md., The Early Show National Correspondent Thalia Assuras met with the family of one such victim, Sean Mullsteff.

"I know he's gone," says Sean's mother, Sue, "but then it'll hit you. You'll think of something he said or a song (Sean sang in a rock band) and it just takes your breath away. It knocks you to the floor. It just feels like this can't be real."

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Sue says Sean was a son who brightened every day.

His sister, Chelsea, calls him a brother any kid would want: "He could talk to you about anything. So I miss that a lot because he used to come in my room every morning and talk to me about what's going on."

But, laments Sean's father, Perry, "The joy went out on April 4th," two weeks after Sean's 19th birthday, when Sean became one of more than 3,600 young drivers killed in road accidents every year.

"As a mom," Sue observes, "you take care from birth. You're doing the nurturing. You're doing the protecting and caring for them when they're sick. And there was nothing I could do."

The family was shattered.

Brother P.J. says he and Sean talked all the time. "We were best friends. That's how it is."

"It's just the hardest thing," adds another brother, Ryan. "Like each day you can't not think about it."

Vehicular crashes are the leading cause of death for kids ages 15 to 20, Assuras reports. Fifteen of them die every day because of inexperience behind the wheel, excessive speed, too many passengers in the car, or alcohol.

"This is an epidemic," frets Jeffrey Runge, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and is a doctor himself. He understands the numbers all too well, and reaches out to students about driving safely.

"We're talking 1,400 injuries a day, 15 deaths a day," Runge says. "It's not only the personal cost. There's a huge economic cost. Every brain injury, we believe, costs society about a million dollars."

The Transportation Department hopes a new public service announcement will hammer home the message to teens that it is, in fact, cool to drive safely.

Sean Mullsteff was only about two miles from home when he died. Police say he was doing more than 80 mph in a 55 mph zone when one of his tires brushed a curb, causing Sean to lose control of the car. It spun out of control and hit a tree. Sean died on impact.

His father, who was in charge of pastoral care at a local church, quit after Seans' death, lacking the strength to counsel others.

But now, says Assuras, Perry Mullsteff has started another ministry of sorts - a foundation to promote defensive driving. He claims teens aren't trained well enough.

Sean's siblings and other students at their high school have learned a hard lesson through Sean's loss. Sister Chelsea notes, "Everybody says... 'It's not going to happen to me because I'm a good driver.' But Sean was a good driver, and he crashed."

With Sean gone, his family prays others will learn, too.

"We want a legacy for Sean," Sue says. "We want to honor Sean. And if we can help save one kid because of Sean, then all of this work that mostly Perry is doing, is going to be worth it."

Parents, points out Assuras, play a key role in the battle against teen driving deaths. And experts say that it's OK to sound like a broken record, repeating warnings about using seatbelts, not speeding, and not drinking and driving.

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