San Antonio (Vocus) October 21, 2008
Teen traffic fatalities are seeing a sharp drop in Texas, and researchers say that part of the credit for the first time goes to an unlikely source - teenagers themselves.
The most recent federal statistics show the number of fatalities among 13-19 year-old drivers and passengers in Texas is down from 549 in 2002 to 424 in 2006. The decline of 125 deaths, or 22.8 percent, is the highest total decrease in the U.S., the largest percentage drop among the nation's biggest states and nearly twice the national average of 12.4 percent.
Texas outpaced New York where the decline was 21.5 percent, California where the reduction was 11 percent, and Florida, where teen fatalities actually increased by 9 percent during that period.
Another important measure - the number of teenage drivers involved in fatal crashes - has also been on the decline. That number dropped 27 percent in Texas, as compared to 13 percent nationwide, from 2002 to 2006.
"This is remarkable progress," said U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, who has championed the teen driver safety issue in Southwest Texas. "The teen driver safety problem is nothing less than a public health crisis, so it's truly encouraging to see that we're making such significant progress on this front."
To explain likely reasons for the trend, safety advocates point out that in the five-year period measured, Texas has seen only two major developments involving young drivers.
The first was the enactment of a graduated driver licensing (GDL) law, which put restrictions on novice drivers during the first six months that they held a license. The second was the introduction of Teens in the Driver Seat® (http://www.t-driver.com), the nation's first peer-to-peer safety program for young drivers, developed by the Texas Transportation Institute. While other efforts have sought to highlight the teen driver issue, TDS is the first program to directly engage teens in raising awareness and changing behavior. Both GDL and peer education are needed, the experts say, because there's no single magic solution to a problem that has reached epidemic proportions across America.
"Effective laws and parental involvement are essential," said Rodriguez, who earlier this year secured $343,000 in federal funding to expand the TDS program in Texas. "But laws and parents will never be enough. We need teenagers to drive the message - just as they're doing through Teens in the Driver Seat."
Early evaluations of the TDS program show that message is getting across. Assessments of some TDS schools reflect increased awareness of key driving risks ranging from 23 percent to 1,300 percent. Field studies at the same schools showed a 30 percent drop in cell phone use while driving, and an 11 percent increase in seat belt use.
The trends and findings will be explored further on Friday at the opening of the Teens in the Driver Seat Summit in San Antonio, a gathering of some 200 teen leaders and safety professionals.
About 6,000 teens die each year in crashes, the leading cause of death for that age group. The first-ever Summit - held during National Teen Driver Safety Week - is intended to provide a forum to promote better understanding of the problem's causes, and to directly involve young people more in its solutions.
The TDS program is sponsored in Texas by the Texas Department of Transportation and State Farm Insurance. New federal funding will provide for the expansion of the program to three additional states this school year.
"The recent news about teen crash fatalities in Texas is very positive," said Russell Henk, Director of the TDS Program at TTI. "This progress in Texas strongly suggests that together, a GDL law and the TDS program can be a powerful one-two punch in the battle to reduce the number of young people dying on our roads."
Henk said in Friday's announcement that another important factor underscores the value of the GDL / TDS combination. The sharp downward trend, he noted, occurred at a time during which parent-taught driver education was permitted in Texas, one of only three states allowing that instructional method. A 2007 study by TTI found that parent-taught teens were nearly three times more likely to be in a fatal crash than teens getting their license through more formal driver education.
"The progress we're making is very encouraging - particularly in light of the obstacles we face," Henk said.
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