Summer can be deadly for teen drivers



OLYMPIA — AAA warns teens to be careful on the road heading into summer, the deadliest season for young drivers, although local officials say teen traffic deaths are on the decline.

Seven of the top 10 deadliest days of the year for teen drivers and passengers nationwide fall between May and August, a AAA report said. June 10 is among those days, and five of the other days are next month: July 2, 4, 9, 15 and 23.

AAA reports that more than 7,300 teens died in auto accidents between the Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays from 2005 to 2009.

Yet in Clark County, teen traffic fatalities are fairly rare.

Five teens died in traffic accidents in Clark County between the Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays from 2005 to 2009, said Kristal Rust, a research analyst for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. In total, 12 teens died in Clark County from traffic crashes during those five years. Those numbers do not include the four Ridgefield teens killed in an August 2009 crash near Clatskanie, Ore.

Throughout the state, 105 teens died in traffic accidents between the Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays in that five-year span, accounting for 34 percent of teen traffic deaths in the state for those years.

“Because the number of teen driver and passenger deaths in Clark County is relatively small, the monthly average is less than one (teen death),” Rust said.

In comparison, the state averages 6.5 traffic-related teen deaths each summer month.

Overall, traffic-related deaths among teens have declined throughout the nation since 2006, according to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

John Dunn, public information officer for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said that trend is consistent for all deaths related to traffic accidents in Washington. This year, traffic accident deaths are down as a whole. DOT officials are close to producing a final report for 2010, which will reveal accidents involving death are still on the decline, Dunn said.

“Right now, 2010 is looking to be the best year in a really long time,” Dunn said.

In 2009, 455 traffic accidents in Washington involved deaths. Compare that to the number of deaths from traffic accidents in the four previous years: 520 in 2008; 570 in 2007; 635 in 2006; and 653 in 2005.

The DOT sends its data to engineers who work to improve road safety.

Improvements to emergency medical systems and enhanced law enforcement contribute to this, as well, Dunn said.

Trooper Ryan Tanner, a public information officer for the Washington State Patrol, said in his seven years working in Clark County, he has not seen many teen traffic deaths.

“Our traffic deaths in Washington have gone down here over that past five years,” Tanner said. “Personally, I haven’t seen a huge number of incidents involving young drivers down here.”

Patrols have cracked down on aggressive driving, speeding, seat-belt noncompliance and DUIs in the past five years, improving traffic safety conditions, Tanner said.

Nonetheless, summer months are typically the deadliest for Clark County drivers, as more people funnel onto the highways for vacations. More young drivers than usual hit the road this time of year, as teens typically get out of school in May or June, said Marie Dodds, a spokeswoman for AAA.

“When school is out, teenagers have more opportunities to drive or ride with other teens,” Dodds said, “and unfortunately when teens drive more, they have more accidents.”

Alcohol consumption and distractions such as talking on phones, texting or changing songs on an iPod while driving often lie at the root of teen accidents over the summer nationwide, Dodds said, although AAA traces most teen driving accidents to lack of experience.

“Distraction certainly plays a role,” she said. “That’s just a part of being an inexperienced driver.”