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Deaths Among Young Teen Drivers Rising Sharply

Distracted driving may be major factor.

by on Feb.26, 2013

Distracted driving may play a major role in rising deaths among young teen drivers.

Countering a more than decade-long trend, the fatality rate among young teen drivers rose sharply during the first six months of 2012, something experts fear may be the result of distracted driving.

The increase echoed a disturbing rise in overall highway fatalities but the Governors Highway Safety Association reported that deaths among 16- and 17-year-old drivers surged a combined 19%, significantly faster than for the general population of motorists.

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“We are still at a much better place than we were 10 or even five years earlier,” said Allan Williams, author of the new GHSA report and the former chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “However, the goal is to strive toward zero deaths, so our aim would be that these deaths should go down every year.”

A total of 133 17-year-old drivers were killed in motor vehicle accidents between January and June of last year, up from 116 during the same period in 2011. For 16-year-olds, the numbers jumped from 86 to 107 year-over-year.

“The numbers are small but important, since we know teen drivers kill other teens and other road users,” said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the GHSA.

The newly released numbers mark the first time the fatality rate among the youngest drivers surged upward since 2000 when 999 16- and 17-year-olds  were killed behind the wheel during the full year.  By 2011, that had dropped to 423.

A total of 25 states reported an increase in deaths during the first half of 2012, while the fatality rate dropped in 17. Another eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change.

Traffic deaths, in general, have suddenly reversed their downward trend, according to various studies including one released last week by the National Safety Council that found the overall number climbing 5% last year. That was the first nationwide increase since 2005. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the top U.S. automotive safety regulatory organization, has indicated a similar trend in its preliminary data for 2012.

Experts point to a variety of possible factors for the surge.  The economic recovery may be leading more people to drive, especially among younger drivers who were harder hit by job losses during the recession. There are some indications that last year’s mild winter may have also played a factor with more Americans on the road, particularly in northern climes.

But distracted driving is also catching blame.  Experts contend that inexperienced young drivers are more likely to both use cellphones for talking and texting and are less likely to recognize when their attention is being diverted from the road.

“With the advances in technology, we suspect distracted driving deaths among teen drivers are rising,” said Kendall Poole, chairman of the GHSA and head of the Tennessee highway safety office.

Ray LaHood, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has warned of an “epidemic” of distracted driving which various groups have blamed for anywhere as high as 16% of all U.S. highway traffic fatalities.

Reversing the unexpected surge in young driver fatalities may be difficult, experts warn.  Many states have already adopted a variety of recommendations made by safety advocates, such as the use of graduated licensing policies. Recent studies, meanwhile, raise questions about the effectiveness crackdowns on distracted driving.

Despite the upward trend in both teen and overall highway deaths, safety advocates, regulators and automakers alike continue to target a further reduction in fatalities. Along with continuing crackdowns on drunk and distracted driving, the various groups are pressing for the use of more advanced safety technologies that can help prevent accidents or reduce the severity when they occur.

Several projects now underway would link vehicle communications systems with roadway infrastructure to alert drivers to weather and traffic problems and even flag motorists if, say, a distracted driver were to race through a red light.

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4 Responses to “Deaths Among Young Teen Drivers Rising Sharply”

  1. C6 driver says:

    There is really not enough information in this article to form an opinion. We are not provided with year/make of the vehicles, as this has a great deal to do with survivor-ability, given the upturn in crash worthiness of vehicles since year 2000. Also there is no data on the split between rural and urban events or the type(s) of roadways, surface streets, arterials, highways. Not to mention the numbers killed in each event as that will effect the data. If we were provided with the number of actual events rather than body count it would be more useful. Also the idea that new technology will have an effect on these numbers from now forward depends on how quickly these improvements dominate the vehicle mix.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      It would be useful, C6, but the data you request are unavailable to us, I’m afraid. But do note that the totals quoted for the teens refers to “drivers,” not occupants. While it is possible you had some cases where two teens collided and both were killed it’s fairly likely the number of fatalities is at least close to the same number of incidents.

      Paul E.

  2. Jorge M. says:

    Unfortunately technology can only do so much to protect people from themselves. State governments are of significant blaim for failing to require actual driving skills of those they issue driver’s license’s to. OJT for your drivers can prove very deadly.

    If the states took half of the money spent on speed enforcement and used it properly for driver’s education and real driving tests, fatalities could be reduced considerably, but then that would not provide millions in revenues annually for local municipalities to fund their operating budgets…

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      It’s time to stop pretending that speed enforcement…except for those truly at the extremes…is anything but a revenue enhancement method. I recall being chewed out by a cop for driving “dangerously” on a stretch of I-696 because I was 5 over the marked speed limit of 65. Never mind the Michigan legislature had raised the actual speed limit to 70 a couple weeks before and the road department simply hadn’t gotten around to changing the signs yet. Courts later said that cops couldn’t ticket drivers for following the approved speed even if the signs hadn’t been changed. Yet the cop fought me in court (I won).

      As to driver education, the lack of it is insane. I recall the mistakes I made in the first weeks of driver ed. If I’d made some of them without an instructor in the car the situation could’ve been far worse. I’m glad to see most states now have some form of graduated or limited licensing for teens but it’s not enough to replace instruction. Europeans are appalled when they see how easy it is to get a license here, and they’re right.

      Paul A. Eisenstein