FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Jaye Sims was about five minutes behind the group of three high school seniors who had piled into the brand-new Cadillac on their way home from school.
Easing his own car down the road, he came upon the flaming wreckage of what moments earlier had been the students' vehicle.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything like that," said Sims, a Freehold Borough councilman and firefighter. "I don't think I can ever get that image out of my mind."
The Jan. 10 crash that killed three students and a 68-year-old school-van driver has caused many to rethink what has become a fundamental rite of passage for high school seniors across the country: kissing the school bus goodbye in favor of the much cooler option of taking one's own car to and from school.
Many educators and safety experts say 17-year-olds are more easily distracted, particularly with friends aboard. But teens say they should not be kept from doing something they are legally allowed to do.
Khaseem Greene, a 17-year-old senior at Elizabeth High School, relishes the freedom that driving his own car to and from school gives him. "You can move when you want to move," he said. "You don't have to wait for anybody."
Two days before the crash that killed the three students, school officials had talked about discouraging students from driving to school.
Superintendent of Schools James Wasser said the informal chat with Freehold Regional Board of Education members about restricting or ending parking privileges for seniors seemed innocuous at the time. Now, it looks like an ominous premonition.
"These roads are not conducive to new drivers driving high-performance cars made of plastic," he said. "It's an accident waiting to happen."
The crash instantly killed Michael Dragonetti, 17, a senior and captain of the school's football team, who was driving a Cadillac CTC his parents had given him as a reward for good grades; his front-seat passenger, James Warnock, 17, also a senior; and a backseat passenger, Andrew Lundy, 16.
Also killed was school transport worker Ruth A. MacArthur, who was driving a Dodge minivan. Authorities say excessive speed played a role in the crash, but have not yet assigned responsibility for it.
Discussing a new Ad Council campaign to get teens to speak up when they are in a car with friends and don't feel safe, many safety experts said it is unrealistic to expect teens not to drive to school, which accounts for most of the time teen drivers spend on the road. They cited the numerous distractions the teens face.
"Teens think they can text message, carry on a conversation, listen to music, and drive, all at the same time," said Penny Wells, executive director of Students Against Destructive Decisions. "This can frequently be a recipe for disaster."
The Freehold Regional school board is considering restricting the on-site parking spaces it issues to seniors after executing a written responsibility contract with them. But the board realizes that is the only leverage it has over them.
Banning on-site parking would just chase students who drive onto local streets, potentially annoying neighbors and endangering students who would have to walk across streets and pull out into traffic from behind other parked cars, Wasser said.
School officials realize that some students need cars to get to after-school jobs. But many feel the teens' lack of experience behind the wheel is a real danger.
"If your kid took six piano lessons, would you expect him or her to be in a concert?" asked Freehold Regional board member Bunny Hammer. "That's what we're doing with cars."
A big part of the debate centers on restrictions placed on new drivers under a so-called graduated license for 17-year-olds. Among other things, it limits them to driving during daylight hours and generally says that no more than one nonfamily member can be a passenger.
The three Freehold teens killed in the crash were violating that provision, which New Jersey law enforcement officials admit is unevenly enforced. There is widespread disagreement over whether such a violation should be considered a primary offense - something a police officer can pull a car over for - or a secondary offense that can be ticketed only if the driver had been doing something else wrong.
But study after study has shown that teen drivers are more easily distracted than more mature motorists, particularly with friends aboard. A report released Thursday by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance Co. found that having one teenage passenger with a teen driver doubles the risk of a fatal crash, while the risk is five times higher when two or more teens ride along.
Traffic accidents are the No. 1 killer of teens in the United States, with a fatality rate four times higher than that of drivers ages 25 to 69, based on miles driven. About 5,600 teens died in traffic accidents in 2005, and about 7,500 were driving cars involved in fatal accidents.
In 2005, 46 New Jerseyans between the ages of 17 and 20 died in crashes.
Most states have laws restricting passengers when teens drive, but 15 states do not. The most common ages for first licenses are 16 or 17, but some states make them wait until age 18. Still others allow teens as young as 15 to get behind the wheel.
Greene, the Elizabeth High School senior, said he can understand why schools would want to discourage students from driving to school. But he said a total ban would be unfair to those who obey the rules and drive safely.
"I pay attention to things," the 17-year-old said while warming up a car that is more than half as old as he is.
Greene said he never fools around behind the wheel or drives too fast.