Jump in young teen traffic deaths worrisome, advocates

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by Chris Patterson

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The number of young teen drivers killed in U.S. traffic crashes has gone up for the first time in more than a decade following years of steady decline.

Twenty-five states reported increases for the first half of last year among the 16 to 17 age group, according to data released on Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

"It appears that we are headed in the wrong direction when it comes to deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers," said Allan Williams, the report's author and a former top researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Any increase in highway deaths is unacceptable, particularly among our teens. We know from research and experience that teen drivers are not only a danger to themselves but also a danger to others on the roadways. So these numbers are a cause for concern," said Kendell Poole, a state official in Tennessee who chairs the governors safety association.

While the death rate is up among young drivers, researchers noted that fatal accidents involving that age group remain at historically low levels.

Combining the two age groups, deaths increased by 19 percent in the first six months of last year. There were 237 total fatalities, which is still off the peak of 544 recorded in 2002.

Highway safety data generally lags because of the complexity of accumulating it from numerous sources, including local law enforcement.

"We are still at a much better place than we were 10 or even five years earlier," Williams said in a statement on the report's findings.

Many states began introducing permits in the early 1990s for younger drivers, a trend that has now spread across much of the country. Researchers speculate that this development and a stronger economy in recent years may be partly to blame for the upswing in fatalities.

Another issue for drivers as a whole may be distraction caused by cell phones, interactive technology in motor vehicles, and other mobile devices, a key safety issue of U.S. transportation planners and safety advocates.

More than 3,000 people were killed and another 416,000 were hurt in crashes blamed on driver distraction in 2010, according to government figures.