The Governors Highway Safety Association statistics compared the first halves of 2011 and 2012. (Annual accident reports typically lag well behind the end of the year.)
The group said that if final data continued the trend, then 2012 would follow 2011 in posting an increase in teen driver deaths. Before 2011, there were eight straight years of decreases.
The GHSA did not indicate distracted driving was a suspect in the increases, although the report’s key image is that of a distracted teen about to plow into another vehicle (top left).
The association said the hike in teen driver deaths “presumably” is related to the recovering economy, which put more young motorists on the road. It also speculated that a loss of momentum in the toughening of states’ Graduated Driver Licensing Systems contributed.
The GHSA long has been ambivalent about efforts to rein in electronic distracted driving, such as the use of cell phones and text messaging. The teen-fatality report suggested that “upgraded passenger restrictions” (under graduated licensing) would be preferable to the electronic device restrictions.
Teens repeatedly have been shown by researchers to be the drivers most likely to text and talk on cell phones.
The GHSA report cited the Highway Loss Data Institute study of 2009 that found no benefit in cell phone and texting laws. That report is widely cited by opponents of distracted driving laws — and has been dismissed by safety advocates including the secretary of Transportation.
The lead researcher on the new GHSA study previously was “chief scientist” at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which includes the Highway Loss Data Institute. He retired before the groups’ disputed 2009 study of distracted driving laws, however.
Last September, the GHSA membership climbed off the fence by supporting bans on handheld cell phone use while driving. Almost all public safety groups and transportation agencies had long been on the record against use of handheld cell phones by drivers.
In 2011, the GHSA issued a survey of others’ research showing “no evidence that cell phone or texting bans have reduced crashes.” It suggested that states hold off on new distracted driving laws, drawing the ire of DOT chief Ray LaHood.
The teen-fatality data came from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The GHSA’s primary membership is of state highway safety officials.
25 states reported increases in teen driver fatalities, 17 had decreases, and eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change.
GHSA chairman Kendell Poole of Tennessee said: “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 a cause for concern. … With the advances in technology, we suspect distracted driving deaths among teen drivers are rising.”
Highway deaths linked to distracted driving were up slightly in 2011, an increase that the federal government said reflected better reporting and increased awareness of the problem.