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An Increase in Deaths of Teenage Drivers

Cedric Hughes

In mid-February, the (US) Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reported an 11% increase in the number of 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths in passenger vehicles during the first half of 2011—in real numbers an increase from 190 to 211 fatalities.  If, when available, statistics for the second half of 2011 show similar results, this will reverse eight years of cumulative declines in deaths for this age group and counter the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) projection of a 0.9% decline in overall total motor vehicle deaths for the same period.

In short, in the US, teen driving remains a problem. And while the changes in state-by-state teen driver fatality numbers generally are small, Florida, Texas and North Carolina reported significant increases.

The GHSA report attributes this increase to two factors: a leveling off of the benefit of state Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) laws, especially where such programs have been in place for some time; and more teen driving as a result of improving economic conditions.  The report calls for more work to be done to save teen lives and the GHSA chairman, Troy E. Costales, speculated this might include “improving driver education and involving parents in proactively establishing safe driving habits for their teens.”

Chairman Costales added, “…I know firsthand the pressures parents face in allowing their teens behind the wheel. As parents, 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 cell phone or electronic device use while driving.”

The conjunction of the idea that the benefit of GDL laws may be plateauing with encouragement to parents to set and enforce what are essentially similar rules is interesting.  It suggests that the effectiveness of GDL-type programs, whatever the source, is not really in dispute.  Road Rules speculates that the plateauing effect may be almost purely statistical or the result of newly developing compliance issues.

Barbara Harsha, Executive Director of GHSA suggested as much in calling on Congress to provide adequate funding so that the NHTSA can research and support demonstration projects to determine the most effective ways to increase teen seat belt use and compliance with GDL laws.  Ms. Harsha also called for funding for the NHTSA and the states for distracted driving campaigns aimed at teen drivers and for research on the impact of changing school start times so that teens are less likely to be driving fatigued.

A recent news report indicates that the US federal government seems to be listening.  In mid-March, the US Senate took steps towards passing laws that could motivate all states —using a carrot-and-stick approach by offering grants for early compliance and withholding highway funding for non-compliance —to implement a three-stage licensing process.  This ‘process’ would restrict teenage night driving during the second stage intermediate period, bar most use of a cellphone in the first two stages, and set age 18 as the baseline for a regular license.  Those states without GDL programs are the particular targets of this legislative effort.

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