Across the nation, the number of drivers ages 16 and 17 who died behind the wheel rose by 10% during the first six months of 2012 compared to the same time one year earlier. This reverses a decrease in driver deaths among this age group that began in 2002, although death rates remain below those in the early 2000s.
The report was released during this week's annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington.
Arizona is among the states that saw an increase in teen driver deaths. While there were just two such deaths from January - June 2011, that number rose to 9 during the first six months of 2012.
So what's going on here?
The report, which is still preliminary, doesn't spend much time offering reasons for this downward trend, but offers the economy as a partial explanation. People simply drive less during tough economic times, and teenagers are thought to be more affected than older drivers. Arizona's economy still isn't anything to cheer but lower gasoline prices could explain an uptick in driving, particularly among teenagers.
Arizona has a graduated driver license program that restricts driving hours and passengers during the first year that a teenager holds a license. Graduated driver licenses are thought to have contributed to the initial drop in teenage driving deaths; the report speculates that this effect may be slowing.
Driver education, however, is not mandatory in Arizona and only 54 public high schools in the state offer it. I contrast this to my own high school experience in New Jersey, where we were required to take driver education even if we had no intention to apply for a license (admittedly a rare event in the Springsteen State).
Is the lack of mandatory driver education a factor? It goes without saying that reinforcing good driving habits starts on the driveway at home. Parents may tell their kids not to text or talk on their cellphones while driving, but how many of them violate that rule themselves--and in front of the kids? I certainly see adults yapping and tapping in their cars all the time.
Driver ed teachers might be able to hammer that point home with more authority and they certainly have the resources--videos, text messages--that parents might not even be aware of.
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), which does study the causes of driving accidents and deaths, has repeatedly called for a ban on using cell phones and all other electronic gadgets while driving. It also recommends that states extend graduated driver licenses through age 18.
In recent years, the Arizona Legislature voted down bills to ban cellphone use while driving, citing "attacks on freedom." Just one such bill has been introduced in the current session.
NHTSA says that 35% of all deaths among teenagers are due to car accidents, and cites inexperience and immaturity as the major cause, combined with:
- Drinking and driving
- Not wearing seat belts
- Distracted driving (cell phone use, loud music, other teen passengers, etc.)
- Drowsy driving
- Nighttime driving
- Other drug use, probably marijuana
There has been a rise in marijuana among teens in general, including those in Arizona teens. Twenty-three percent of Arizona students who took the most recent (2011) National Youth Risk Behavior Survey say they currently smoked marijuana. In fact, Arizona teens as a whole are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than the typical American teenager.
I don't mean to paint a picture that "they're all wasted!" but clearly something is wrong when a positive trend suddenly veers the wrong way.