published Saturday, May 24th, 2014

We're worst for DWY: Hamilton County ranked highest in Tennessee for crashes involving young drivers

Chattanooga police officer Allen Huggins works the scene of a crash where three teenagers were ejected from a Nissan pickup on January 20, 2014.
Chattanooga police officer Allen Huggins works the scene of a crash where three teenagers were ejected from a Nissan pickup on January 20, 2014.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Crash rate per 1,000 drivers ages 15-25 in 2013 (1=best)

1. Bledsoe 34.31

2. Lake 36.61

3. Houston 39.52

4. Pickett 40.82

5. Henry 44.1


91. Madison 144.94

92. Rutherford 148.39

93. Shelby 151.82

94. Davidson 151.86

95. Hamilton 162.64

Hamilton County over the years

Crash rate per 1,000 drivers and total number of crashes

2013: 162.64 - 5,206

2012: 165.84 - 5,311

2011: 151.71 - 4,845

2010: 140.96 - 4,461

2009: 134.62 - 4,282

2008: 126.8 - 3,960

2007: 128.68 - 4,008

Number of total teen wrecks in 2007 compared to 2013

Hamilton: 4,008 | 5,206

Davidson: 9,834 | 7,467

Knox: 7,029 | 5,855

Shelby: 13,299 | 12,105

Source: Governor's Highway Safety Office

Hamilton County residents concerned about the danger from young drivers may want to start shopping for real estate near Pikeville, Tenn.

Bucking a state trend of improving safety for youngsters behind the wheel, Hamilton County drivers ages 15-25 crashed at a higher rate than their counterparts in any of Tennessee's other 94 counties in 2013, statistics from the Governor's Highway Safety Office show.

Though the local youth crash rate dipped slightly from 2012 to 2013, Hamilton County has spent the last several years going the opposite direction of the state's other major municipal areas in Shelby, Davidson and Knox counties.

From 2007 to 2013, those three counties significantly reduced their accident rates for young drivers, while the rate in Hamilton County steadily increased until plateauing in 2012.

The same data shows that Bledsoe County is on the opposite end of the spectrum -- the state's safest county for young drivers -- with a crash rate almost five times lower than Hamilton County's in 2013.

Experts say immaturity and a lack of experience help explain why young drivers have more crashes. But factors like distracted driving and alcohol use magnify those issues.

In rural counties like Bledsoe, with lower populations, fewer drivers are on the road and the chance of crashing shrinks.

Kendell Poole, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Office, said that regardless of location, young drivers are the state's most vulnerable group.

"I don't want to paint Hamilton County as, 'Oh, gosh, they're the absolute worst,'" Poole said. "But data doesn't lie."

Caroline Johnson, director of Chattanooga's driver education program, said many inexperienced drivers simply fail to realize how much attention that driving requires. And that leads to distracted driving.

"It's a huge responsibility," she said. "If we can impress that upon them, the rest will take care of themselves."

Poole said a state campaign against distracted driving is likely next on the agenda for the Governor's Highway Safety Office to go along with safety initiatives like "Click It or Ticket" and "Booze It and Lose it."

"Now, with all the technology that's made our lives so much easier, it's not just texting," he said. "It's looking up websites and reading them. And it's not just teen drivers. It's adults setting the example for teen drivers in doing that, as well."

One proven way to improve safety for young drivers is a graduated licensing program like the one begun in Tennessee in 2001. Teens with learner's permits are subject to restrictions -- for example, only being allowed to drive when they have an adult in the front seat -- that are lessened as they gain experience and are eventually allowed to operate a vehicle alone.

Even after obtaining a license, Tennessee teens continue to be restricted on how late they can drive and how many passengers they carry with them. Such programs have been proven to significantly reduce crashes among new drivers when the guidelines are followed.

But in Tennessee, teens, parents and even law enforcement agencies are not always well-versed on how the graduated licensing program works, Poole said.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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