Fatalities of teenage drivers increased in the United States, but were down in California, and distracted driving continues to be the hot-button issue, according to a recent study by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The study, which compared driver deaths of 16- and 17-year-olds between the first six months of 2012 and the same time period in 2011, found an increase of 19 percent in the U.S. — the first such spike when analyzing that particular data since 2002.
"Distraction has been the dominant topic in recent years among the media, the general public and many highway safety professionals," the study stated. "Distracted driving is a particular problem for teenagers, given their inexperience combined with their high dependence on electronic equipment and frequent travel with peer passengers."
Although California saw a drop from six to four 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths — and that accounted for only roughly 1.7 percent of the 240 reported in the U.S. during the first half of 2012 — local officials explained distracted driving remains a problem in fatal and non-fatal crashes.
Victorville California Highway Patrol Officer Matt Hunt has seen an increase in distracted driving-related collisions among all ages, not just with teens, but said distractions typically plague teen motorists.
"They do happen regularly," he said of accidents involving distracted teen drivers. The driver is "playing with the radio, talking on a cellphone, talking with friends," he said.
Drivers ages 15 to 19 only represent 3.7 percent of California's licensed drivers, but are found at fault in 74 percent of all fatal collisions they're involved in, according to the California Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System.
To help combat the issue, both Hunt and Barstow CHP Officer Adam Croxton offer "Start Smart" safety classes for current and prospective teenage drivers at their respective CHP offices.
The classes are free of charge and designed to provide teens and their parents or guardians with tips to avoid collisions, safe driving habits, consequences of making a poor choice behind the wheel of a vehicle and other bits of information aimed toward helping new drivers.
"A common problem is some teens have the it-can't-happen-to-me mentality," Croxton said. "Unfortunately, it's that mentality that will eventually lead to a collision."
"At that age, teens sometimes feel invincible and, unfortunately, they're not."
To review the full study, released last week, visit www.ghsa.org/html/publications/pdf/spotlights/spotlight_teens12.pdf.
Shea Johnson may be reached at (760) 256-4126 or at SJohnson@DesertDispatch.com.