By Holly Zachariah
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The 8-year-old pulled himself from behind the steering wheel of the SUV and hopped down.
He'd just driven his grandpa's Oldsmobile Bravada 15 miles across the Ohio Turnpike and had stopped at a booth only because he didn't have a toll ticket.
When the boy exited the vehicle, he was staring at the belly of a Lordstown police officer standing there waiting for him. Still, the boy said he knew how to get back home and offered to climb back in and turn around the Bravada. An incredulous state trooper told him no.
"I didn't know you all arrested kids," the boy told the trooper once he was inside a patrol car. He took the vehicle, he said, "just to practice how to drive."
That scene unfolded the afternoon of Nov. 4, and the State Highway Patrol says it underscores an alarming trend: young kids grabbing the keys to vehicles and joyriding down Ohio's highways.
Since 2005, the annual number of speeding tickets the patrol has issued to drivers under the age of 16 has increased 261 percent. This year, troopers have given speeding tickets to 202 juveniles not yet old enough to drive, and six fatal crashes have involved drivers 15 years old or younger.
The most recent fatal crash occurred near Lancaster on Nov. 16 when a 13-year-old stole a rental truck and sped away. One man died and several people were injured when the boy plowed into four vehicles at an intersection on old Rt. 33.
Charles Shoemaker faces one delinquency count of receiving stolen property, and more charges are expected.
"This is a big issue, and one that can largely be controlled by adults," patrol spokesman Sgt. Carlos Smith said. "There are things people can do to keep the kids from being tempted."
The patrol says stopping these drivers is a priority.
Parents should lock their cars and not leave the keys in the open. In addition, they shouldn't allow children to play around a vehicle or pretend to drive it, Smith said. "That gives them a sense that the car is a toy."
Not everyone has seen increases in such cases. Sheriffs in Madison and Union counties couldn't recall recent stops of very young drivers, but both said it happens.
"I guarantee you it goes on more than we know," Union County Sheriff Rocky Nelson said. "I'm sure there are kids out there driving and just getting lucky."
Luck, perhaps, played a role as no one got hurt when that 8-year-old left Youngstown in the SUV and headed west. In the end, he wasn't charged, but Children Services got involved.
And in September, troopers pursued a 12-year-old driving his parents' van nearly 100 mph for more than 17 miles through three counties along I-71 in northeastern Ohio.
The video from a trooper's in-car camera shows the van weaving across three lanes, cutting off traffic and driving on the shoulder in a construction zone. The driver finally hit a set of stop sticks, spun out of control and crashed into a concrete barrier and a guardrail.
He wasn't injured.
The boy, from East Cleveland, told troopers he had been embarrassed by a fight at school the day before and wanted to get into trouble to avoid returning to class. He was charged with fleeing from police and spent time in a juvenile detention center.
Often, kids don't realize the danger of their actions, said Patrol Sgt. Craig Cvetan of the Lancaster post. He still tells the story of a traffic stop he made years ago at 2 a.m. involving a car going the wrong direction on a one-way street.
He found a 15-year-old behind the wheel.
"I was shocked," Cvetan said. Then he peered into the back of the Dodge Colt and found the driver's siblings, ages 7 and 9. He'd been babysitting, he told Cvetan, and grew bored. So he had a few drinks from his parents' liquor cabinet and took off.
"It's not like these kids have jobs or anyplace to be or anywhere to go," Cvetan said. "They just want to see if they can drive. It's a very scary thing."
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Ohio officers see surge in underage joy riders