A report from a national road safety group highlights what could be a troubling trend among young drivers: an increase in fatalities among 16- and 17-year-old drivers after several years of declines in that age group.
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) examined deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers through the first six months of 2011 and found an 11% increase over the same period in 2010. Deaths of 16-year-olds rose 16% and 17-year-olds 7%, for an overall jump of 11%.
Twenty-three states saw increases, 19 had decreases, and there was no change in eight states and the District of Columbia.
The study by the GHSA, which represents states on highway safety issues, covers only the first half of last year. Traffic deaths usually rise during the second half of the year, which includes summer and vacation driving. If data for the second half of 2011 continue the trend, it would be the first time in eight years that deaths have risen for this age group of drivers.
The rise is believed to be caused mainly by two things, says Allan Williams, a highway safety consultant who conducted the study:
•The improving economy means more teens on the roads. The recession probably helped reduced travel among teen drivers in 2008 and 2009; those drivers are returning to the highways.
•The impact of phased-in driving privileges for teens - graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs - is leveling off. These initiatives, implemented or strengthened in the mid-1990s, are in place in every state. "Once you get that initial impact, you're not going to get another 20% drop the next year, unless you can improve compliance," Williams says.
The states that saw increases in deaths among young drivers "don't stand out as weak" GDL states, Williams says. He says there is room for further strengthening of state GDL laws and for more consistent enforcement of some provisions, such as restrictions on teen passengers and nighttime driving.
Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, cautions that "if you're looking at six months' worth of data, you've got to be careful about trying to draw global conclusions."
GDL programs are proven effective, and parental involvement is crucial, he says.
"Regardless of state laws, parents can just institute and enforce restrictions consistent with the best GDLs," Kissinger says. "The best GDL programs are only as good as what is enforced. And parents are in a much better position than local police to enforce those provisions."