More teenagers die in automobile accidents than any other way each year, and it appears that the number of teen deaths on the highway may have climbed in 2011 for the first time in eight years.
The federal statistics still are being compiled, but data collected by the Governors Highway Safety Association for the first six months of 2011 show an uptick in teen fatalities. The GHSA is an organization of state highway safety coordinators, who shared the preliminary data that they submit to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that tracks national trends.
The raw numbers of the increase were not huge — the number of 16-year-olds killed increased from 80 to 93, and among 17-year-olds it went from 110 to 118 — but in an era when teen deaths and overall highway fatalities have been in steady decline, they raised alarms with safety advocates.
“Congress should provide financial incentives to states that have strengthened or will strengthen teen driving laws,” said Barbara Harsha, executive director of GHSA.
She called on NHTSA to figure out how to get more teens to use seat belts and said Congress should fund distracted-driving efforts aimed at teen drivers.
A Pew Research Center survey said 43 percent of teenagers said they have talked on a cellphone while driving, 48 percent said they had been in car with a driver who was texting and 40 percent said they had been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that put themselves or others in danger.
The Obama administration this week asked Congress to authorize $330 million over the next six years to combat distracted driving, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been in the vanguard of a crusade to address it.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 19,076 teenagers died in crashes in a seven-year period that ended in 2006. Male deaths (12,479) outnumbered female deaths, and teens were nearly twice as likely to die at night.
“Research also needs to be done to determine the impact of changing school start times so that teens are less likely to be driving fatigued,” Harsha said.
The GHSA report released Thursday was done by Allan Williams, a researcher who formerly served as chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The upward trend was not evident in the Washington region. The District reported no teen crash deaths in the first six months of 2010 or 2011. Maryland had one more during that period in 2011 than it did the year before. Virginia had two fewer.
Williams said the increase in deaths might be because the positive effect of state graduated driver licensing laws, which have been in place for several years, might be leveling off. He also speculated that improving economic conditions have resulted in an increase in teen driving.
“While it is not a surprise that these numbers are stabilizing or slightly increasing, states should not accept these deaths as something that cannot be prevented,” Williams said. “More work can and should be done to save teen lives.”
GHSA Chairman Troy E. Costales encouraged parents to establish expectations before they let teenagers drive.
“As the parent of a young driver and a soon-to-be-driver, I know firsthand the pressures parents face in allowing their teens behind the wheel,” Costales said. “We must set and enforce strict rules for our new drivers, making sure risks are minimized. This includes limiting other teens in the car, limiting nighttime driving and absolutely prohibiting any type of cellphone or electronic device use while driving.”