Level Hurst Road

Thursday evening, as we drove down Hurst Road, we saw kids clustered by the tree where five days before Alyssa Gelfand had crashed her car. She died last Tuesday; her two passengers survived.

No doubt those standing by the tree were Alyssa’s friends, gathering together in their grief to comfort one another. They left behind flowers as mementos of their friendship.

Within view of that spontaneous memorial was another — a weathered ceramic angel in the fork of a tree where, 17 years before, another car with Guilderland High School teens crashed — the driver and one passenger died, another passenger survived.

Those kids were hotboxing — riding high, seeking thrills. After the crash, their friends raised money for an Angel of Hope statue that still stands in Altamont’s park.

Any death is hard, but when people die so young — healthy kids with bright futures — it is almost unbearable. One of Alyssa’s friends, Gabriella Fiederlein, shared a picture with us that we printed in our June 1 edition. It showed Alyssa with three of her girlfriends, dressed for prom. Wearing long gowns and high-heeled shoes, they squeezed together, cheek to cheek, arms interlocked to smile for the camera — looking, as one, into their future as women. It broke our heart.

We’d like to suggest a bit of good that could come from this grief, a practical measure that might save lives in the future: Our town should re-grade Hurst Road.

We spoke last week with a 65-year-old man, Rob Sigond, who graduated from Guilderland High School in 1970. He said that even back then kids would speed down the Hurst Road with friends, getting some air from the road’s undulating surface. “We cleared all four wheels on full-size cars,” he said, noting that today’s smaller cars loose traction more easily than the heavy steel-framed cars of his youth.

Likewise, Charles Connors, who had lived across the street from the site of the crash until recently, said cars would hit the hill, known as the “jump,” and be airborne briefly.

The road could be re-graded to remove the rise, dip, and hump about 100 feet east of the crashes, said Allan Herschenroder, a retired Guilderland Center firefighter who lives on Hurst Road.

Police have said speed appears to be a factor in the recent crash. The road is posted at 30 miles per hour. The town’s supervisor, Peter Barber, said, “It’s a properly designed road for the posted speed. You could make the argument that no town roads are made for going 90 miles per hour or more.”

That’s true, you could make that argument. You could also argue that Hurst Road, as it is, is an attractive nuisance, meaning that the landowner — in this case, the town — may be held liable for injuries to youth if it attracted them. The attractive nuisance doctrine has no cut-off point defining youth; it is usually invoked to hold landowners responsible when children are attracted to their land, then hurt by something like a junked car or unsafe structure on the property.

But why argue at all or take further chances? Barber deferred to the town’s highway superintendent, Steve Oliver.

Oliver gets it. Teens know about the hill, he said, stating, “They’ve got some kind of game going with it.” He concluded, “So we’ll be doing something about it.”

We believe Oliver is a man of his word. We’re going to hold him to it.

We’d love nothing more than not having to report on the death of another teen — ever. But we’re not naive enough to believe that will happen.

Neuroscience in recent years, through the advances of structural and functional MRI and other imaging techniques, has allowed researchers to see and map out the course of changes in brain structure between childhood and adulthood.

Such mapping makes clear why the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows, for example, that nearly 30 percent of adolescents in the last year rode in a car driven by someone who had been drinking; a third or a quarter engaged in many other sorts of risky behavior despite extensive efforts at warning and education.

“Risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence as a result of changes around the time of puberty in the brain’s socio-emotional system leading to increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers, fueled mainly by a dramatic remodeling of the brain’s dopaminergic system,” concludes Laurence Steinberg in “A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking.”

“Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood because of changes in the brain’s cognitive control system — changes which improve individuals’ capacity for self-regulation,” Steinberg wrote. “These changes occur across adolescence and young adulthood and are seen in structural and functional changes within the prefrontal cortex and its connections to other brain regions. The differing timetables of these changes make mid-adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behavior.”

So — we can’t stop the way adolescents’ brains work. But we can — and must — take away one place in our midst that has consistently inspired risky riding. Leveling Hurst Road would be a fitting act to help assuage our grief.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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