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.
“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.