Fifteen teenagers die every day in traffic crashes, and high speed, alcohol and the failure to wear seat belts remain the biggest contributors to fatal accidents nationally, according to a federal report released yesterday.
The number of people between 15 and 20 years old involved in fatal crashes rose 5 percent -- to 7,884 -- between 1993 and 2003, despite a slight decline last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. Traffic accidents remain the leading cause of death among teenagers.
The Washington region is experiencing a deadly spate of crashes involving teenagers. Since Sept. 24, 14 young people have died in seven accidents in Maryland and Virginia.
"This is not an inevitable consequence of going through one's teen years. These are preventable," National Highway Traffic Safety administrator Jeffrey W. Runge said in an interview yesterday. "This really boils down to parents."
Parental vigilance, he said, could help by limiting how often students drive at night and how many passengers they have. The District and Virginia limit the number of passengers that young, novice drivers can have. Maryland does not.
The federal agency also announced yesterday that it is launching a campaign by athletes and movie stars to educate teenagers about the dangers of driving.
Although teenage drivers were only 6.4 percent of all licensed drivers nationwide in 2002 -- the most recent year for which data are available -- they accounted for the highest rate of drivers involved in fatal crashes, with nearly 67 per 100,000 licensed drivers. The next most likely group to be involved in a fatal crash was 21-to-24-year-olds, with 47 involved in fatal crashes per 100,000 drivers .
Nearly 31 percent of the teenage drivers who died in crashes last year had been drinking, and 74 percent were not wearing seat belts, the statistics show.
The data contained glimmers of hope: The number of teenage drivers involved in fatal crashes who had a blood alcohol content of at least 0.08 declined by 6 percent from 1993 to 2003. Highway safety officials attributed the decline to state laws setting the minimum drinking age at 21, as well as efforts by such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving.
Runge said he has personal reasons to campaign for increased vigilance about teenage drivers, having worked as an emergency room physician near Charlotte.
Runge, the father of two young drivers, said that parents need to talk to their children about driving safety and that they need to set firm limits. He urges parents to counsel their children about the importance of buckling seat belts and about the dangers of drinking and driving. He also urged parents to set curfews to keep them off the road at night and to be discriminating about the models of cars they allow their teenagers to drive. He also said parents should limit how many passengers young drivers can have.
"The risk of a fatal crash is directly related to the number of teens in the vehicle," he said.
Young drivers are, first and foremost, simply inexperienced, said Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the Washington-based American Insurance Association. They overdrive on curves and fail to account for their reaction times being slower as the car goes faster, she said.
"The insurance industry has always been concerned about the issue of young drivers since there were young drivers," she said.
Insurers have championed several measures aimed at reducing fatalities attributed to teenage drivers, such as graduated licensing programs. Insurers also have called for restrictions on nighttime driving and passenger restrictions for young drivers.
"These are things that can work," Rochman said. "Having said that, we're still stuck with inexperience and youthful exuberance. Young people think they're invincible. They think bad things only happen to other people."