Fatal Teen Driver Crashes On the Rise

The 8-year decline in teen driver deaths may have come to an end: According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), fatal crashes involving teen drivers increased by 11 percent in the first half of 2011.

The new GHSA report revealed that 211 16- and 17-year-old drivers died in the first 6 months of the year, compared to the 190 who died in the first half of 2010. Researchers have not yet determined whether that increase in fatal teen crashes continued in the second half of 2011 – but if it did, the 8-year streak of continuous decline in teen driver deaths for this age group might be over.

"Since graduated driver licensing (GDL) began to be introduced in the mid-1990s, teenage driver fatalities have dropped precipitously, more so than in the case of older drivers. This is so particularly for 16- and 17-year-olds, the primary age groups targeted by GDL," the report stated. "In the first half of 2011, there is preliminary evidence that this decline has halted."

A statistical projection from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), meanwhile, reveals that total motor vehicle deaths for the first half of 2011 declined 0.9 percent.

"While it is good news that overall deaths appear to have declined during the first 6 months of 2011, we are concerned that the trend with teens is going in the opposite direction," said GHSA chairman Troy E. Costales. "As the report notes, a widespread strengthening of laws is still possible and finding effective tools outside of GDL is an important goal. These include improving driver education and involving parents in proactively establishing safe driving habits for their teens."

Preventing Teen Driver Deaths

The GHSA report used data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Deaths of 16-year-old drivers increased from 80 to 93 (16 percent) while the number for 17-year-olds went from 110 to 118 (7 percent), a cumulative increase of 11 percent. Twenty-three states reported increases, 19 had decreases, and eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change. While the changes in state-by-state fatality numbers generally are small, Florida, Texas and North Carolina reported significant increases.

Dr. Allan Williams, a researcher who formerly served as chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, surveyed the GHSA members who reported fatality numbers for every state and Washington, D.C. Williams attributes much of the increase to the fact that the benefit of state GDL laws may be leveling off, as most of these laws have been in place for some time. Additionally, Williams speculates that improving economic conditions contribute to an increase in teen driving, thus also increasing their exposure to risk.

"While it is not a surprise that these numbers are stabilizing or slightly increasing, states should not accept these deaths as something that cannot be prevented. More work can and should be done to save teen lives," Williams stressed.

GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha added that states could use federal support to save more teen lives.

"As part of the upcoming highway reauthorization bill, Congress should provide financial incentives to states that have strengthened or will strengthen teen driving laws. Additionally, Congress should provide adequate funding so that NHTSA can research and support demonstration projects to determine the most effective ways to increase teen seat belt use and compliance with GDL laws. Congress also should fund NHTSA and the states to carry out distracted driving campaigns aimed at teen drivers," Harsha said. "Research also needs to be done to determine the impact of changing school start times so that teens are less likely to be driving fatigued."

The full report, including state-by-state data, is available at http://www.ghsa.org/html/publications/spotlight/teens2011.html.

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