Summer takes toll on teen drivers

The deadly days have arrived for teenage drivers, along with new data about what makes the warm-weather months so dangerous.

While the overwhelming majority of crashes involving teen drivers are the operators’ fault, 40 percent of those interviewed for an insurance industry report said they had no control over whether they got into an accident.

“Seventy-five percent of teen crashes are caused by driver error. It’s troubling that so many believe they have no control over whether or not they will crash,” said Chris Mullen, director of technology research at State Farm insurance.

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers, and preliminary indications are that after declining for several years, they increased in the first half of 2012. A report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which receives information that states send to a federal database, showed that deaths of teen drivers nationwide increased by 19 percent in the first six months of last year.

Federal data show that the average number of teenagers who die in accidents doubles during the three months that begin when school lets out for the summer. Seven of the 10 deadliest days for teen drivers are clustered in those months, and some of the dates from 2011 are likely party weekends: the last Saturday in June, two days of the July 4 weekend and a Sunday late in August just before universities launch their fall terms.

“Beyond dispute, summertime emerges as the deadliest time of year for teen drivers and passengers,” said John B. Townsend II of AAA, who tracks teen fatality statistics. “What’s more, weekends are particularly dangerous for teen drivers.”

Surprisingly, a study released Tuesday by Ford showed that two-thirds of teen drivers and 58 percent of their parents believed that winter was the most dangerous season for teenagers on the road.

Some of the reasons for teenage traffic accidents may also have been brought out by the Ford report: Two-thirds of teen drivers say they are distracted when behind the wheel; 42 percent said they turn up the radio so loud that they can’t hear nearby vehicles; and more than half say they listen to an iPod or MP3 player.

The research by State Farm confirmed earlier studies showing that while most teenage drivers are aware that distracted driving is dangerous, many of them engage in the risky behavior. Three-quarters of those contacted by the company said they’d asked a friend to stop texting while behind the wheel. But almost half of them admitted to reading or sending text messages when driving themselves.

More than 90 percent said they used a seat belt, the report said.

Despite common parental laments that their teenagers don’t listen to them, State Farm said that two-thirds of teenagers said that the best way to learn driving skills was with their parent in the car. More than half of them said their parents provided driving advice.

AAA found that 980 teen drivers and their passengers died in crashes nationwide between Memorial Day and Labor Day of 2011.

“To keep teens safe during these dangerous months and the rest of the year, parents need to be especially vigilant about communicating with their teens about safety and enforcing household rules about driving,” Townsend said.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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