Go to your computer, log on to YouTube and enter these words in the search field: “car surfing.”
Then prepare yourself for daredevil teens perched atop the hoods of cars traveling highway speeds, laughing and sneering at death.
But death can sneer back, as it did Monday.
That evening, Anna Gabrielle Hawkins was killed after she fell from the roof of a speeding car driven by another teen. The Dawsonville girl, 16, couldn’t hold on when the car entered a curve, said investigators. Police are still investigating the accident.
Car-surfing, say physicians and highway safety researchers, is almost always done by young people driven by the desire to impress friends, achieve online fame and flaunt their immature notions of immortality.
This week’s car surfing tragedy is at least the second to happen in the Atlanta region this year and the third in the last 15 months.
In April, two Gwinnett women, 18 and 20, were seriously injured when they fell off the hood of a car cruising through a Lilburn neighborhood. A third surfer, a 20-year-old man, escaped with bruises.
In April 2012, a Gwinnett 16-year-old was surfing atop a car in Norcross when it flipped, trapping him underneath and crushing his legs.
Hard numbers for car surfing are hard to find, but such incidents appear to be on the rise, said Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (GOHS), and at least one study suggests the cause may be the rise of social media and the ability to photograph and share stunts online. GOHS, which compiles traffic data from around the state, occasionally gets anecdotal reports about young people falling off moving cars and trucks.
“We all have things we’ve done in the past and said, ‘I probably shouldn’t have done that,’” Blackwood said. “I hope and pray that we don’t have to establish a category for this in our databases.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that at least 99 people were killed or seriously injured in surfing accidents between 1990 and 2008. The report, researchers noted, was hardly exhaustive; it was compiled from newspaper articles, meaning some incidents may not have been documented. Most car-surfing victims, researchers determined, were young, and male.
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons also took a look at car surfing, and suggested that social media, video games and TV shows may be behind some of the dangerous activity. The association released a report in 2009 that reviewed seven cases.
YouTube, said the authors, allowed young people to share their antics on an international scale. The video game Grand Theft Auto made car surfing look cool, the authors said. Also, “Jackass,” the MTV show that showcased dumb and dangerous behavior, also appeared to promote car surfing, the report suggested.
“They see this behavior on social medial and it may not transfer to reality,” said Shenandoah Robinson, a Boston pediatric neurosurgeon who helped author the study. “They don’t realize: These are dangerous activities.”
A search on YouTube for “car surfing” found these examples:
A shirtless young man clambers through the sunroof of a speeding car, steps on its hood and assumes the classic surfer’s pose — legs bent, arms held out for balance. Fields and trees whizz by.
In another clip, a youth sits atop a car going 65 mph, his arms spread like wings. His buddies in another car, hard on the bumper of the first, catch it all on video.
In a third, a young woman stands on a hood, then falls the moment the car moves. You can hear her laugh.
Norcross police Detective Ed Head, a 33-year cop, investigated the 2012 crash that seriously injured the 16-year-old. He said he’s yet to hear an explanation for such behavior.
“I don’t know the rhyme and reason for it,” he said.
The reason, said Atlanta psychologist Lori Muskat, may lie in the folds of the brain.
The brains of teens and young adults are still growing, she said. The region of the brain that drives impulsive behavior develops quickly — by adolescence, she said, it’s “super-charged.” But the lobes that generate reflective thought — the part of the brain that would act as a brake on rash behavior — hasn’t caught up.
“In adolescence,” she said, “you have a recipe for acting out impulsive behaviors.”
Muskat, who works closely with teens and young adults, bases her conclusion on textbook studies and hands-on experience. She works closely with teens and young adults.
“They tell me, ‘I don’t know why I did that,’” she said. ” They say, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’”