The number of 16- and 17-year-old drivers who died in traffic accidents rose significantly in the first half of 2012, creeping back toward what traffic safety experts called "unacceptable" levels, according to research published Tuesday.
The report — a preliminary compilation of data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia by the Governors Highway Safety Association — found that 240 16- and 17-year-olds died behind the wheel from January through June 2012. That's a 19 percent increase over the same period in 2011 and a startling 26 percent more than in the first half of 2010.
The report identified no single overarching reason teen mortality jumped. Instead, it theorizes that two-decade-old state regulations on the youngest drivers haven't kept up with the teen driving population, which has been given more reasons to drive by the improving economy. And like numerous other traffic safety groups, the governors association warned of the distractions posed by cellphones and other electronics.
"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," said Kendall Poole, chairman of the governors' safety organization and director of the Tennessee Governor's Highway Safety Office.
The rise in deaths last year is "unacceptable," he said.
Separate data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, peg traffic accidents as the single biggest killer of U.S. teens, accounting for more than third of all deaths among Americans 15 to 20 years old.
Until 2011, the number of deaths among beginning drivers had been falling since 2002, when it hit a modern annual record of 544. That was roughly a decade after states began adopting so-called graduated driver licensing laws, which impose restrictions on the youngest drivers in stages as they approach age 18.
All 50 states now have such laws, and increases in deaths over the last two years could simply reflect officials' and parents' letting their guard down as the laws have become a part of everyday life, said Allan Williams, former chief scientist for the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute, who conducted the study.
The improving economy may also be an incentive for more teenagers to drive, statistically increasing their risk, Williams said.
Whatever the reason, "based on 2011 final data and the early look at 2012, it appears that we are headed the wrong direction," he said.
The report called on states to renew their focus on graduated driving laws and to establish programs to help parents keep their children safe.
"Parents have a huge responsibility to ensure safe teen driving behavior," said Barbara Harsha, executive director the governors group. "States can facilitate this by providing innovative programs that bring parents and teens together around this issue."
The NHTSA has proposed new federal grants to help states fine-tune and enforce their graduated driver laws. To qualify for the money, states would have to require new drivers to go through a learner's permit stage and an intermediate permit stage before they could get full licenses.
The proposals closely mirror a three-part program to restrict beginning drivers recommended by the governors safety group. That template calls for:
A learner's permit beginning no earlier than age 16, lasting at least six months and requiring 30 to 50 hours of parent-certified supervision.
An intermediate stage lasting at least until age 18, including a ban on driving after 9 or 10 p.m., with a limit of one teen passenger.
A ban on all cellphones and other electronic devices.
"Our main goal is to save lives," said Jeff Bledsoe, sheriff of Dickson County, Tenn., whose state has already put most of those ideas in place.
Dickson especially stressed the ban on electronics behind the wheel, telling NBC station WSMV of Nashville: "With all of the technology we have these days — with cell phones and other items in the vehicle that could take our focus off the roadway — we have to be cautious and know what a huge responsibility it is when we operate a vehicle."
Authorities could go even further in West Virginia, where a measure was introduced in the state House last week to require beginning drivers to pass drug tests — three of them, once before they could get a learner's permit, again before they could step up to an intermediate license and one last time before they could get a full license.
"Obviously, any time you can take an opportunity to try and eliminate drugs — and especially in driving — that's obviously a good thing," said Bernie Buttrey, a driver's education instructor in Parkersburg, W.Va.
Buttrey told NBC station WTAP of Parkersburg that he was hesitant because of the constitutional implications, but he said such tests may be reasonable to ensure that beginning teenage drivers remain safe.
"We've passed laws that some people think maybe are excessive in the use of your cellphones, but I think evidence proves that the less you use your cellphone, the less you're distracted," he said. "So this is just maybe another step in the right direction."
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