Deaths of teen drivers jumped 19% in the first six months of last year, more than double the percentage increase for overall traffic deaths, according to a new report.
There were 240 highway fatalities of 16- and 17-year-old drivers through the first half of 2012, up from 202 for the same period a year earlier, says the Governors Highway Safety Association, based on preliminary data from its members.
Overall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projects that all traffic deaths were up 8% for the period.
If the numbers hold true for the second half of 2012, it would mark the second straight year of increases in deaths of teen drivers. In 2011, road deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers rose 3%, ending eight straight years of declines.
Allan Williams, an independent highway safety consultant who compiled the GHSA report, says the spike in teen driver fatalities likely reflects two factors: the improving economy and a leveling off of the safety benefits from graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs.
"The economy has a lot to do with highway deaths in general," says Williams, former chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It has even more of an effect on young people, who have less disposable income" and tend to drive less in a downturn.
He also speculates that the safety impact of graduated driver licensing laws, in which young people gain more driving privileges as they gain experience, might have waned. "We've gotten a lot of mileage out of GDL, but a lot of states still have programs that are somewhat weak," Williams says. "We need to pay more attention to the things that we know work."
Through June 2012, deaths of 16-year-old drivers increased 24%, to 107; fatalities of 17-year-olds rose 15% to 133, for a cumulative jump of 19%.
Twenty-five states reported increases, 17 had drops and eight states and the District of Columbia had no change.
"That certainly is alarming," says John Ulczycki, vice president of the National Safety Council, which says overall road deaths rose about 5% in 2012. "There still are no states that have what we consider the best-practice (GDL) laws. Some states could do a little more, and some states could do a lot more."
"In my state of Tennessee, we have worked extensively to keep teen drivers safe," says GHSA chairman Kendell Poole, director of the state's Governor's Highway Safety Office. "Despite our efforts, teens remain our most vulnerable population. With the advances in technology, we suspect distracted driving deaths among teen drivers are rising."