Det. Bethany Lau show compassion but also deals in cold, hard facts when interacting with teen drivers
For a law enforcement officer, it is a heartbreaking part of the job.
“How do you tell someone that their 16-year-old son is dead?” Det. Bethany Lau of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office said. “Just knowing this person is never going to experience joy again. They’re never going to hit those milestones. They’re never going to see their 18th birthday. They’re never going to party with their friends on their 21st. They’re never going to get that first job as an adult. They’re never going to experience all of those different things. It usually comes down to, really, a very silly reason. Going 15 mph over the limit, you’re not getting there that much faster.”
Lau is on the Traffic Homicide Unit. Her job is to process a crash scene, to determine how a fatal crash occurred.
In 2021, she worked on four crash scenes that took the life of people under the age of 18.
This month, Target Zero, a strategic highway safety plan in Washington, is emphasizing the importance of getting the message out about safety to teen drivers. The rules of the road are there for their safety, Lau says. Also, parents can be the best teachers, by example.
Lau was on the scene in north county in 2021 when a young driver, with two passengers, lost control of his truck after going too fast while trying to maneuver a curve. The vehicle went through a telephone pole and wrapped around a tree. The vehicle caught on fire. The driver and one passenger survived. Another passenger did not.
“People really do sometimes forget the possible consequences of their actions while they are driving,” Lau said. “We’re not just talking about, ‘I didn’t work out today so I’m not going to feel good tomorrow.’ Or, ‘I stole from Wal-Mart and now I’m in trouble.’ We’re talking about the choices that you make behind the wheel could kill somebody.”
Even the choices before driving can have devastating results. In two of the fatal crashes involving teens in 2021, had the driver followed the rules of the intermediate license — in those cases no passengers outside of family under the age of 21 — those passengers would have survived.
Lau did say one of the fatalities in 2021 that she investigated was a freak accident, that under normal circumstances would not have resulted in a death.
Many fatal crashes, though, have a clear cause: excessive speed.
Lau said the time that anyone is “saving,” she said, using her fingers to give quote signs, is not worth it.
“The downside is so much worse,” she said. “The downside here is death. Thinking about never existing again? Regardless of your religious beliefs, that’s a really heavy thought.”
Then there is the crash itself, the severity.
“It’s not an easy way to go, dying in a car crash,” Lau said. “It’s usually painful, especially if you see it coming. If you’re a passenger, you’re in zero control over the situation. You are careening toward this tree … now you’ve spent your last moments in terror.”
And for the driver?
“Is that something you’re willing to take? Are you willing to walk away but (your passenger) didn’t?”
It does sound harsh. But this is the harsh reality of the roadways.
“If even one kid drives differently … because they realize this is serious, it’s worth it,” Lau said.
Law enforcement can teach lessons, but Lau said the best teachers are parents.
“Be a good example. Use your blinker. Pay attention to the speed limit. Follow the rules of the road when (your children) are in the car with you,” Lau said. “Show them you understand these rules and follow them. They are going to do what you do.”
Lau said when she pulls over a teen driver for unsafe actions, she explains to the driver exactly why the driver is receiving a citation.
“We don’t just arbitrarily give these things. It’s not just because we feel like it,” Lau said. “There is actual data-driven safety precautions that we’ve taken and tried to put into place to literally save people’s lives.”
At the same time, she uses a compassionate tone.
Lau has been with Clark County Sheriff’s Office since late 2017, in the field since summer of 2018.
“I knew that I wanted to do something I felt was meaningful with my life,” she said. “I wanted to help people.”
She also recalled, growing up in Arizona, the difficult times she saw family and friends had with law enforcement.
“I can be that cop that I wished I had interacted with. Any time I dealt with law enforcement (when I was younger), it was a really crappy experience,” Lau said. “Maybe I can help be that better experience for someone else.”
That could mean pulling over a young driver, giving the driver some honest, hard facts, but doing so with compassion.
If that driver corrects the actions, it could one day save a life.
Note: Target Zero has many resources for parents of young drivers to educate and encourage safe driving habits. Research shows that parent involvement makes a positive difference in a teen’s driving. For more information, go to: https://wadrivetozero.com/young-drivers/