Nighttime driving is biggest danger for teen drivers, study says

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

Driving after dark is the single most-dangerous risk a teenage driver can take and is more likely to result in death than drinking, speeding or disregarding a seat belt, according to a national 10-year study of highway fatalities released Thursday.

"Everything points in the same direction for this age group, and that is to the use of cellphones behind the wheel," said Bernie Fette, one of the study's authors. "Whenever you combine the nighttime danger and the cellphone danger with inexperience, you have created a perfect storm."

That "perfect storm" took the life of Cady Anne Reynolds, a high school sophomore whose summer vacation had just begun in Omaha three years ago. Reynolds, 16, was driving home from a movie when her car was hit broadside by a vehicle driven by another 16-year-old who sped through a red light at 11 p.m.

"She almost hit two other cars before she hit our daughter," her mother, Shari Reynolds, said Wednesday. "She clearly was distracted by something, and she hit our daughter at 50 miles per hour without ever touching the brake."

The report, conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute, used federal traffic fatality data from 1999 to 2008, a period in which the number of traffic deaths declined nationwide.

Safer cars, safer highways, seat-belt laws and drunken-driving enforcement have been linked to the drop in fatalities -- all factors in darkness and daylight alike.

So why didn't nighttime traffic deaths drop, too?

Among drivers 20 and older, alcohol was a clear culprit in the proportional increase in nighttime deaths. Not so with teenagers, among whom there was a greater increase but no corresponding jump in deaths that could be attributed to drunken driving.

"We have a test to see whether someone's been drinking, but there is no test to see whether you've been on your cellphone," Fette said. "Because teenagers have grown up with these devices in their hands, they feel a comfort level and a very false sense of security. They will tell you, 'I can text with my phone still in my pocket, so I certainly can text while I'm driving.' "

The report adds to data amassed by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has crusaded for more than a year about the dangers of texting and cellphone use.

"A quarter of all teens admit to texting behind the wheel and, in 2008, the highest proportion of distracted drivers in fatal crashes were under the age of 20," LaHood said. "Teen drivers are some of the most vulnerable drivers on the road due to inexperience, and adding cellphones to the mix only compounds the dangers. We're doing everything possible to get the message out to teens that driving while talking or texting on a cellphone is not worth the risk."

In addition to dismissing the dangers of cellphone use, Fette said, few teenagers are aware that nightfall magnifies the risk posed by their inexperience and fatigue.

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