Twenty teenagers dead in five automobile crashes in five states. All within one week.
A rash of deadly wrecks in Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Indiana and North Dakota, is a jarring reminder that vehicle crashes are still the No. 1 killer of U.S. teenagers, and that teen road deaths are rising fastest of all as the improving economy draws more traffic.
The crashes during the week that ended Tuesday, hammer home an overlooked reality of teenage driving: The risk of a teen driver dying in a crash rises sharply with teen passengers in the car. Details vary in the recent crashes, but each involved a teen driver with teen passengers.
That fact highlights both the pivotal role of parenting in the treacherous maze that is learning to drive, and the need for states to do more in implementing stronger graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs that phase in privileges for novice drivers as they gain experience, some safe driving advocates say.
The spate of deaths "should be a wake-up call for parents," said Peter Kissinger of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, who stressed that he didn't know the particulars of the recent wrecks. "Parents just need to be more engaged. We tend to look the other way. (And think) it's always going to be somebody else's child.... You don't want to face up to the reality that it could happen to your child."
A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that drivers in the USA talk and text on cellphones at higher rates than drivers in several European countries, noted that parents "have a crucial role" in keeping teen drivers safe by modeling good driving behavior and considering parent-teen driving agreements.
Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association agrees. "It is critical that parents are actively engaged as their teens learn to drive," he said. "We can enact the best laws and create the strongest programs, but without parental involvement, teens will continue to be at risk."
But the nation is a long way from enacting the best GDL laws, said Susan Duchak, senior manager of teen safe driving at The Allstate Foundation. "It's inexcusable that no state has the full array of (seven) laws that have been proven to keep teens safe," she said. "That's something we should all be appalled about."
The seven laws: a minimum age of 16 for a learner's permit; a six-month holding period for the permit; 30-50 hours of supervised driving; night-time limits; passenger restrictions; cellphone limits, and a minimum age of 18 for an unrestricted license.
But state legislators have slowed in passing GDL laws. In its annual report card on state driving laws, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said in January that only four states tinkered with their suite of teen driving laws in 2012, as legislators were perhaps lulled into complacency by the recession-fueled drop in teen driving deaths.
"We can't rely on legislation alone to solve this problem," said John Ulczycki of the National Safety Council, which is pushing for better teen driving laws. "No state has a perfect (GDL) law, but any parent can have a perfect law in their home."
A new survey by The Allstate Foundation illustrates the work still to be done. More than 40% of parents don't know that auto crashes are the leading killer of teens, and three-quarters mistakenly believe that risk-taking and distractions are the leading cause of teen crashes. It's actually driver inexperience.
The Allstate Foundation and the National Safety Council are teaming up for a new effort, called Drive it Home, that seeks to inform parents by giving them information in brief, sometimes humorous bites bolstered by video and interactive components like quizzes and role-playing. They'll begin a 14-city tour later this month.
Teen safe driving efforts must also focus on getting teens to talk with their peers, Duchak said. "We have to make safe driving socially acceptable to teens," she said.
The recent deadly wrecks include:
--Four teens, ages 14-17, were killed in a one-car crash Monday night near Wilmington, Ill. They died when their car skidded off a bridge and into a creek, authorities said.
--Five teens, ages 15-17, were killed Sunday near Dumas, Texas, when their Chevy ran a stop sign and collided with a tanker loaded with fuel. Authorities said the teens died at the scene and the truck driver was severely burned.
--Six teens, ages 14-19, were killed early Sunday in Warren, Ohio, when the SUV they were in sped down a 35-mph road, hit a guard rail and flipped into a pond.
--Three teens, ages 17 and 18, from the town of Versailles, Ind., died March 7 when two pickup trucks collided outside of town. Three other students were injured in the crash.
--Two teens, ages 17 and 18, were killed March 5 in Watford City, N.D., when their SUV slid on ice, collided with an oncoming truck and split in half. The 17-year-old driver was also hurt in the crash.
For all the heartache of those five crashes, this is a situation that could get worse in the coming months. The USA is approaching the heavy teen driving period of proms, graduations and summer vacation, a time that normally sees some of the year's deadliest days for teen drivers.
"These 20 deaths in just a few days are an urgent reminder to parents to ensure that their teens are making safe choices as we head into the deadly teen driving summer season," Adkins said.
By Larry Copeland