Teen driving fatalities up in Iowa, nationally

BY BRIANNA JETT | MARCH 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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For teens across the nation and here at home, driving is proving to be increasingly dangerous.

The Governor’s Highway Safety Association reported on Feb. 26 that the number of teenage-driver fatalities rose drastically in the beginning of 2012.

“The No. 1 cause of death among teens 16 to 19 is driving a car,” said Daniel McGehee, the director of the Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Division of the University of Iowa’s Pubic Policy Center. “It’s the most dangerous thing you do at that age.”

In the first six months of 2012 in the United States, there were 240 driver deaths among teenagers. In comparison, the first six months of 2011 had 202 deaths.

Iowa is not exempt from the spike.

“In the last year, Iowa also saw what the nation saw — that there was a slight increase in teen deaths,” said Patrick Hoye, the bureau chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

Officials believe there are many factors that have led to the increase in fatalities, one of which is the strengthened economy.

“As the economy has recovered, more people are on the road,” McGehee said. “When the employment rate is lower, they don’t work as much and don’t drive as much.”

Jonathan Adkins, the deputy executive director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, agreed.

“When the economy gets better, teens tend to drive more,” he said.

Another issue officials are looking at is Iowa’s graduated license program.

“We have one of the least up-to-date graduated-license programs in the country,” McGehee said.

Legislators, though, seem split on whether the program should be changed.

“I think we seriously need to revise the current graduated-license program,” said Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville. “We need to make sure young people have enough training and that training is monitored.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, is not focused on the license program.

“I feel pretty comfortable with the way they are now,” she said.

Ernst and Jacoby agree, however, that distracted driving is an issue that needs to be looked into, but it is hard to define.

“I think it is we just need to better define or wrap our arms around what distracted driving is,” Ernst said.

Jacoby said regulating distractions is difficult but believes education can help.

Traffic-safety officials, though, believe that distracted driving is another factor that is playing a huge role in the increase of teen-driver fatalities.

“We are seeing that as one of the leading causes,” Hoye said. “There will have to be a push from the Iowa Legislature to restrict the use of those devices.”

Officials lack concrete data, but they place blame on electronic devices. McGehee said the smart phone is becoming an ever-present part of society, and for rural Iowa, he believes the electronic devices play an even bigger role in distractions.

“One of the problems rural Iowa has is that teens typically have longer commutes,” McGehee said.

Normally, there is a difference between rural and urban accidents.

“If you’re rural, crashes tend to be much more fatal,” he said. “When you’re in an urban area, you tend to crash more, but [they] are less fatal.”

Officials hope to improve laws and highway safety, but they insist that drivers have to be safe as well.

“At the end of the day, a lot of it still rests with the driver,” Hoye said.

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