Nighttime driving is biggest danger for teen drivers, study says

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A06

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.

"More than 80 percent of teens can name alcohol as a driving risk," Fette said, "but only 3 percent are aware that driving at night is dangerous."

The report cites research from the National Sleep Foundation that says the average teen needs nine hours of sleep but gets seven.

"The resulting fatigue, especially late at night, can contribute to impairment that is similar to being intoxicated," the Texas Transportation Institute report says.

Data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that the crash rate per mile driven for 16-year-olds is almost 10 times the rate for drivers 30 to 59. NHTSA research has also shown that teens killed at night are less likely to be wearing seat belts. About 6,000 teenagers die in car crashes each year.

The Texas research indicates that nighttime driving was the No. 1 risk for fatalities among teenage drivers, followed by speed, distractions, failure to wear a seat belt and alcohol use.

Maryland, Virginia and the District have graduated licensing laws that limit driving privileges until teenagers gain experience, as do most states. The laws restrict hours for nighttime driving and the number of passengers that a teen can have in the car.

"If you add one kid in a car [driven by a teenager], you double the risk of crash," Fette said. "With two kids, you triple it, and with three kids, it goes up by a factor of six."

All of those factors -- darkness, speed, alcohol, inexperience, lack of seat belts and distractions -- contributed a spate of fatal teen crashes in the Washington region to Fette's database.

Seventeen teenagers died on area roads within a four-month period in 2004. Speeding was a factor in eight of the crashes, failure to wear a seat belt was a factor in seven, alcohol was involved in at least two, one vehicle carried six passengers and inexperience was cited in five cases. Thirteen of the accidents happened after dark.

Since their daughter died, Shari and Rob Reynolds have campaigned for laws to counteract distracted driving. Rob Reynolds is a founding member of FocusDriven, a group patterned after Mothers Against Drunk Driving that wants to ban cellphone use behind the wheel.

"We're fully aware of the problem of nighttime driving," Shari Reynolds said. "When teens are in a group, they exhibit more risky behavior. Being with their friends, feeling the freedom, maybe being out a little late, and the adrenaline starts pumping."

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