After years of steady declines in teen driver deaths, the fatality numbers have started to increase again, according to a new nation-wide report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). The study, which counted up teen driver deaths in every state plus D.C. in the first six months of 2012, found that deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers increased from 202 to 240, a 19-percent jump from year-earlier figures.
Deaths of 16-year-old drivers rose most sharply, from 86 to 107, a 24-percent change. Counting teen passengers with drivers of any age, car crashes remain the number-one cause of injury and death among American teens aged 15 through 20.
The hike in teen driver deaths parallels findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the past year indicating that traffic deaths overall, not just teens, also started climbing in 2012 after many years of improvement. Overall fatalities rose a little over eight percent in the first half of 2012, according to preliminary figures.
It's too early to tell just what factors are responsible for this rise. Experts from GHSA and from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety speculate that the modest uptick in deaths, and it is modest by historical standards, may have something to do with the improving economy, which brings more driving and thus more exposure to risk.
One of the most successful programs for curbing teen traffic deaths has been the Graduated Driver Licensing laws adopted by nearly all states. But the benefits from those laws may be leveling off, according to Dr. Allan Williams, who authored the GHSA study. However, he notes, "We're still at a much better place than we were 10 or even five years ago."
What does work? Consumer Reports has some tips for teen drivers and their parents, designed to help teens become safer drivers.
- Always buckle up. That's one of the few truly effective safety measures of which you have control.
- Hang up the phone. Talking or texting while driving takes your attention off the road, and dramatically slows reaction times in an emergency.
- Limit nighttime driving and driving in bad weather when possible.
- Limit passengers, especially other teens. The more people, the more distraction.
- Drive a good car. Inexperienced drivers should drive the safest car possible, one with modern safety gear including, especially, electronic stability control.
- Make a contract. Parents need to set rules and expectations, spell them out clearly, and then enforce them.
- Learn the skill of "car control." Some defensive driving schools offer courses and one-day clinics to teach teenagers car control and how to avoid an accident. The courses are not only beneficial but most teens find them fun. Sometimes the courses are even free.