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The Journal Gazette

Teen traffic deaths on rise

State’s increase highest in US; expert advances theories

Some of the stories end better than they could have.

A 17-year-old Auburn boy flips his SUV into a ditch one December evening in Williams County, Ohio. The three teens in the truck with him are hurt, but all of them live.

Another 17-year-old boy ends up in critical condition at a Fort Wayne hospital after a SUV collides with his van as he tries to make a left turn onto Main Street in Hudson.

He was severely injured, but he’s alive.

And then there are the stories that don’t have happy endings.

After being down for several years, preliminary data gathered by the Governors Highway Safety Association suggest that fatal traffic crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers are beginning to spike.

So there are more stories like this:

A 17-year-old Albion boy died in Noble County one evening this year when his Ford Explorer went off the road, struck an embankment and overturned.

Or this one: A 17-year-old Michigan girl’s last words were over her cell phone to a friend, right after her car clipped a snow bank and spun into oncoming traffic and right before it was T-boned by an SUV.

“I’m going to crash,” she said before being killed.

And Indiana is leading the pack.

The report compared fatal car crashes involving 16- and 17-year-olds from the first six months of 2011 against the first six months of 2012.

Nationwide, there was a 19 percent increase.

Indiana had the highest increase in the country: Three such fatal crashes happened in 2011 compared to 16 last year, according to the report.

“We were only looking at these young years, and these crashes are pretty serious,” said Jonathan Adkins, the deputy executive director and communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

According to the report’s author, Alan Williams, a couple of factors may be driving the upward trend.

State graduated driving license laws may be leveling off and losing their benefit. Plus, an improving economy is contributing to an increase in teen driving.

More teen drivers, especially those with little experience, possibly carry with them more risk.

“Teens tend to be optional drivers,” Adkins said, adding that a teen who may not have a car from his or her parents in down times might have one now.

Adkins said his organization does not have the data to suggest whether teens may be more distracted by their phones or other technology, but the thought is there.

A recent analysis by the National Safety Council, an advocacy group, found that crash deaths where drivers were on the phone are seriously underreported.

That study, which did not specify age of driver, found that there was strong evidence that 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 involved a driver using a cellphone.

Of those, only half were coded in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s accident database as involving cellphone use, according to the study.

“We don’t have the data to prove that, but we suspect that might play a factor,” Adkins said of cellphone use.

“Teens in particular are attached to that phone.”

The deaths of 16- and 17-year-olds had been steadily dropping since 2002, when 544 were recorded through the first six months of that year. There were 240 deaths in the first six months of 2012.

Last year’s total, while nowhere near the numbers recorded more than a decade ago, marks the second consecutive year in which researchers found an increase.

And it comes at a time when crashes overall are up.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is projecting an 8 percent increase in all traffic deaths when all the numbers for last year are tallied.

According to another report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, highway deaths are projected to have risen by 5.3 percent in 2012.

The number of motorcyclists who died on those highways rose 14.7 percent in that time frame, according to that report.

Adkins said that some reports show that there are more vehicles on the road than there were in previous years, but not by much.

“There may be more dangerous drivers on the road,” Adkins said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.