Last week brought news that the trend in teen deaths due to automobile accidents – after eight years of declining numbers – has suddenly begun moving in the wrong direction. Data from the Governors Highway Safety Association show that for the first six months of 2011, highway deaths among 16 and 17-year-olds increased. Although the increases were slight, the end result is that more teen drivers are losing their lives on our nation’s roads and highways – in such a case, any increase is unacceptable.
Why the sudden uptick in teen highway deaths – fatigue, decreased seatbelt use, or perhaps distraction from cell phones and portable electronic devices? Unfortunately, it’s too early to know for sure; it could be any of these factors, or even a combination of them. But we don’t have to wait on additional data to be crunched to take action. The NTSB has made a number of recommendations that, if enacted, would increase safety for teen drivers: comprehensive graduated driver licensing programs; limitations on hours of driving and the number of passengers for new drivers; and, bans on the use of wireless communications devices for those just learning to drive.
Reversing this trend, however, will take much more than simply changing the laws. We do need strong education, strong legislation, and strong enforcement. But in addition, and perhaps just as importantly, we need positive peer pressure to model good driving behavior. When teens commit themselves collectively to safer driving habits, the impact is as immediate as it is sustained. The power is in their hands to reverse the trend in teen driving deaths, every time they get behind the wheel.
Robert L. Sumwalt was sworn in as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 21, 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.