Summer driving a deadly 100 days for teens

Summer is an especially dangerous time for teen drivers.

And the Fourth of July is one of the most deadly days of all.

Teens account for nearly 10 percent of all fatalities on the holiday, according to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit.

Factors such as the sheer number of people traveling on the holiday, distracted driving and driving after drinking are risk factors for all drivers, but teens are particularly vulnerable, said Shauna McBride, an Allstate Insurance spokeswoman.

But the danger extends beyond just this one day. Mothers Against Drunk Driving calls the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day the 100 deadliest days for teen drivers.

Lack of driving experience is one of the biggest risks for both the July 4 and overall summertime death rates among teens.

Summertime presents increased risks simply because of the amount of free time teens have. “More people are driving in the summer than other times of the year,” said Kathy Williams, an injury and violence prevention specialist for the state Department of Health. “We’re having fun and don’t pay as much attention to stuff as we should.”

Traffic collisions are the leading cause of death among teenagers, Williams said.

In Washington, 134 young people 15 to 17 years of age died in the five-year period ending in 2010, including 20 from Snohomish County.

The number was even higher for 18- to 19-year-olds, with 185 deaths during the same period, including 13 from Snohomish County.

“It’s inexperience, a lot of it,” Williams said. “They haven’t had as many close calls. They haven’t learned the ropes of driving.”

This can mean that they don’t anticipate the possibility of mistakes by other drivers, such as an oncoming car crossing the centerline, she said.

Inattention and distractions also contribute to the dangers for young drivers, she said.

“Having more peers in the car is very distracting,” Williams said. “One passenger isn’t so bad.” But when there are three passengers in the car and they’re talking and texting, “the risk goes up a lot.”

Compared with driving alone, 16- to 17-year-olds have a 40 percent increased risk of crashing when they have one friend in the car, twice the risk with two passengers, and almost four times the risk with three or more teenage passengers, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published in May.

The more teens there are in a car with a teen driver, the more likely they are to engage in risky behaviors such as speeding, said Ann Dellinger, who leads the motor vehicle injury prevention team at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Evening hour driving greatly heightens the risks of teens being killed on the road. Half of all teen traffic deaths occur in a nine-hour period between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m., according the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

While more collisions occur at night among drivers of all ages, teens have even higher evening collision rates, Dellinger said.

“Everything that’s a risk for you and I … speeding, driving after drinking, it just makes it so much worse when a teen does it,” she said. “They haven’t had the experience to be well-practiced drivers yet.”

In Snohomish County, 10 percent of 12th graders surveyed in 2010 reported instances of drinking and driving.

Efforts are under way in Washington to pass additional laws that govern young drivers. They include increasing the ban on having anyone other than family members in the car from six months to 12 months after teens have been licensed, Williams said.

Increasing the curfew on teen driving is also being considered, she said. “Right now it’s 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. We’re looking at other states to see if it started at 11 p.m., did it reduce the number of crashes and deaths? We think it did.”

A lot can be done to reduce teen driving risks, Williams said. Parents can promise to provide teens a ride home, no questions asked, if they find themselves in any situation involving a car where they feel their safety may be at risk.

Dellinger encourages parents to practice driving with their teen during different road and weather conditions.

Teens and parents also can sign a driving agreement, pledging to wear their seatbelt, never drink and drive or take risks with speeding, she said.

On average, eight American teens die every day in traffic deaths, Dellinger said.

“We know some things that can prevent these deaths,” she said. “That’s what makes it so terribly disturbing. This doesn’t have to happen.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Parents can learn how to talk to their teens about dangers while driving from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov/parentsarethekey.

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