Teen traffic fatalities increase during summer

Summer's longer driving hours add to risk

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Teens don't get in more traffic accidents during the summer than other seasons, but when they do the crash is more likely to be deadly, according to data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

AAA calls July 4 the worst day of the year for fatal car crashes involving teens, but Clark County teens escaped this year's holiday without a fatality.

That's not to say the holiday week slipped by without incident in Southwest Washington.

A 15-year-old Port Townsend girl lost control of her vehicle Thursday afternoon on southbound Interstate 5 near Kalama. The Subaru Legacy went off the roadway into a dirt embankment and rolled over, landing on its top. Although the teen walked away with a scratch on her hand, her passenger, a 52-year-old woman, was seriously injured and the car was totaled.

The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day has been labeled the "100 Deadliest Days" for teens.

"I think it's just as simple a thing as, there are just more kids driving during the summer," said Trooper Ryan Tanner, Washington State Patrol spokesman. "They're not in school all day, so there's more time for them to be driving."

Not wearing a seatbelt, drinking and driving, speeding and distracted driving can all contribute to traffic accidents and traffic fatalities, regardless of age.

Even the time of day when teens drive can influence their likelihood of getting in a car accident. Typically, most collisions occur around 5 p.m., when people are getting off work, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

For teens, however, the most common time for fatal car accidents is 1 to 3 a.m. The chance of a traffic accident doubles at night, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Speeding-related fatalities and drug and alcohol-related fatalities tend to occur in this early-morning period.

"During the summertime, I definitely see more underage people drinking and driving. Distracted driving, too," Tanner said.

In a 2010 survey of more than 4,000 youths in Clark County, 21 percent of high school seniors said they had ridden with a drinking driver. This percentage is just below the state average of 23 percent.

In the summer, teens might pack into a car with a group of friends, which can be a huge distraction for an inexperienced driver, even before you add alcohol.

"That's just a recipe for disaster," Tanner said.

Single-vehicle wrecks

In the state's Southwest region, 57 percent of fatal crashes on state highways involve drivers' hitting a fixed object, according to WSDOT. That includes concrete bridge abutments, guardrails, roadway ditches, traffic signals and light poles.

And the top contributing factor that makes drivers hit something that isn't moving?

Speed. About one-third of fatal accidents in this region are caused primarily by speeding drivers.

Speed is the biggest factor in any collision involving teenage drivers, including those accidents where everyone walks away injury-free. From 2010 to 2011, 154 teenage drivers statewide crashed because they exceeded a reasonable safe speed.

"There are a lot of unknowns when you leave the roadway about how much you can control your vehicle," Tanner said.

You just never know what or who may be on the road. Tanner said that last year, he saw a lot of pedestrian collisions, including one involving a dementia patient who wandered into traffic and another that involved a person who ran onto Interstate 5.

The good news is, Clark County's collision rates are less than average and the number of statewide traffic fatalities is trending downward. In 2006, Washington had 85 traffic fatalities involving drivers 15-19 years of age. By 2010, the number of fatalities dropped to 43.

Clark County residents are good about wearing seat belts. The usage rate is 99.1 percent -- one of the highest in the state -- according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Vancouver has the lowest collision rate among Washington cities with comparable populations: Bellevue, Everett, Spokane and Tacoma, according to WSDOT. Some counties tend to have higher collision rates and more frequent fatal traffic accidents than others. In Yakima, a county with about half the population of Clark County, from 2006 to 2010 there were twice as many fatal car accidents involving teens who weren't wearing seat belts.

"It changes from year to year," Tanner said. "I think the state is heading in the right direction. We want to head toward target zero, where we don't have any fatal crashes."

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.