After years of decline, the number of young teen driver deaths in the United States saw its biggest increase in a decade, although analysts can't say if it's texting, poor training or some other factor that is to blame.
A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association on Tuesday found a 19 percent increase in the number of U.S. deaths for drivers 16 and 17 years old in the first half of 2012, based on preliminary data. If it holds up, it will be the second straight year that such deaths were up, after eight years of steady declines. The 240 recorded deaths for the period were still far below the figure a decade ago, when a total of 544 16- and 17-year-old drivers died in accidents.
"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 cause for concern," said Allan Williams, a researcher who formerly served as chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Mr. Williams attributed much of the increase to the variable quality of state-based "graduated driver licensing" standards for new drivers. Mr. Williams added that improving economic conditions are contributing to an increase in teen driving in 2011 and 2012, raising the likelihood for an accident.
The rise in teen driver fatalities mirrors a 5 percent increase in U.S. traffic fatalities to about 36,200 overall in 2012, according to a survey released the National Safety Council earlier this month -- the first increase in eight years. The council also said crash injuries requiring medical attention rose by an estimated 5 percent to 3.9 million.
John Ulczycki, vice president of strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council and a specialist on distracted driving, said the numbers may not be so bad when the full 2012 figures are in. Milder winter weather in 2012 pushed up driving miles compared to 2011, he noted.
"When we look at the full year, I am certainly hopeful it will not be 19 percent," he said.
Jonathan Adkins, the Governors Highway Safety Association deputy executive director, agreed that an overall increase in teenagers on the road may be the main reason there were more deaths in the preliminary data.
But Mr. Adkins also said that states should raise teenage driving standards and age restrictions, and improve driver education programs.
The number of 16-year-old drivers killed in accidents rose from 86 to 107 in the first six months of 2012, a 24 percent increase, while 17-year-old driver fatalities increased from 116 to 133, a 15 percent jump. Some 25 states reported increases in the survey, 17 had decreases and eight states -- including the District -- recorded no change in the number of teen driver deaths.
The District joined just three states in recording no teen driver deaths during this period. Maryland increased from two deaths to four while Virginia increased from two teen driver deaths to six.
John Saunders, director of Virginia Highway Safety Services, said texting and other modern electronic distractions could play a role in the rising trend for teen fatalities.
"The issue of distraction is very underreported," Mr. Saunders said.
While cellphones are often cited as the main problem, Mr. Saunders pointed out that talking to a passenger, picking up something that fell or even changing the radio station can all be potential hazards for inexperienced drivers.
"There is nothing more important when you are behind the wheel," Saunders said. "That phone call or text can always wait."
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