published Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Danger: Young teens on the road

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    A Chattanooga motorist holds an iPhone 4S while driving on Thursday. The National Transportation Safety Board declared last week that texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is too dangerous to be allowed and urged all states to ban any cellphone use behind the wheel except for emergencies.
    Photo by Alex Washburn.
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Parents of teenagers have many concerns, but one event that is especially worrisome is the time when they hand car keys to a teenager and send him or her off on their own. There is considerable reason -- aside from emotion -- for such worry. Teens, especially those recently licensed to drive, can be a considerable danger to themselves and to others on the nation's roads.

Consider the following:

• Teens are at the highest risk for having a fatal crash in the first six months of receiving a driver's license.

• Drivers aged 16-19 are four times more likely to die in an accident than drivers aged 25-69.

• Vehicle crashes -- not murder, suicide or illness -- are the leading cause of teen deaths in the United States.

• Male teens are twice as likely as females to be killed in a crash.

• More than a third of male teen drivers were speeding at the time of a fatal crash.

• More than half of teen drivers killed in crashes weren't wearing a seat belt.

• Nearly a at third of teen drivers killed on the road were or had been drinking at the time of their deaths.

If that's not enough to scare the dickens out of parents, those who share the road with young teens and public safety officials, here's a really frightening fact. Problems tied to teen driving are getting worse. Just released research indicates that fatalities among 16- and 17-year-old drivers are increasing after several years of declines in the age group.

A study of 16- and 17-year old drivers through the first six months of 2011 (the latest period available) showed a 16 percent increase in deaths among 16-year-olds and a 7 percent increase among 17-year-olds, an overall increase of 11 percent. By comparison deaths in other age groups continued to drop. The teen toll, sadly, might get worse.

Traffic deaths usually increase in the last half of a year because of summer and vacation driving. If the 2011 trend continues, it would be the first time in eight years that deaths have increased among 16 and 17-year olds. It is a national problem.

Though Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama showed declines in deaths in the survey, 23 states showed increases. Eight states and the District of Columbia, showed no change. Societal changes appear to drive the rising numbers.

A decade or so ago, there was a concerted effort by the states to reduce teen deaths on the road. Most implemented changes -- restricted and graduated licensing , etc. -- to promote road safety and save lives. Moreover, a slowing economy and rising fuel prices kept a lot of youngsters off the road. That scenario is changing.

The benefits of licensing and rule changes are leveling off. An improving economy and a demographic surge means more youngsters will get licenses and take to the road. The more youngsters on the road, the greater the possibility of accidents. Still, an increase in the number of teen deaths is not inevitable. Recent yearly declines prove that.

That trend can be continued. Stricter enforcement of current laws and more parental control can help. Local, state and federal support to develop new strategies and to promote proven programs that directly impact safe teen driving habits would be beneficial, too. There's no way to keep young teen drivers off the road. The goal should be to minimize the risks associated with the age group. Doing so won't make parents worry any less, but it could make highways safer for teens and all who share the road with them.

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