SC young teen driver death trend down

jmonk@thestate.comMarch 5, 2013 

Deaths of South Carolina drivers ages 16 and 17 dipped slightly in 2012 compared with 2011, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety’s Office of Highway Safety.

That bucks the national trend of rising teen deaths behind the wheel.

But it is in keeping the long-range trend in South Carolina of deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers declining since 2003. That year, 29 16- and 17-year-olds died. In 2012, 13 died.

The topic of young driver deaths has been in the news since the Governors Highway Safety Association last month released a study indicating that deaths of young drivers had risen in much of the nation for the first six months of 2012, compared with the first six months of 2011. It predicted that in many states, young driver deaths would rise for all of 2012.

However, South Carolina defied the predictions, with teen driver deaths dropping from 14 in 2011 to 13 in 2012.

The state’s mandatory seat-belt law, which took effect for the first full year in 2006, helped reduce teen deaths, safety officials said. These days, about 60 percent of teens who die in fatal accidents aren’t buckled up. That used to be a lot higher.

But officials also attribute the decline to a multi-pronged effort, much of it financed by federal and corporate grants, that reaches tens of thousands of high school students each year, confronting them in emotionally dramatic ways to get them to change youthful reckless driving habits that could get them killed.

4 programs

The four major outreaches are:

•  Alive at 25. Begun in 2007 at 11 high schools and reaching 3,511 students that year, this intensive, 4½-hour program taught by law enforcement officers last year reached 18,284 students at 105 high schools. The program goes far beyond driving mechanics and knowledge of traffic laws, focusing instead on emotionally connecting with students to get them to change dangerous driving habits.

“It’s not a scare tactic — it’s more an emotional impact — how would your parents react if we were to knock on their door and say you aren’t coming home?” said Brooke Russell, executive director of the S.C. Chapter of the National Safety Council.

One big reason for its success might be that many schools won’t allow students to drive to school unless they have taken the course.

Alive at 25 is designed to modify teens’ risk-taking behavior. In recent years, various studies have indicated that areas of teen brains that assess risks may not be fully mature, making teens prone to act on impulse and to take unnecessary chances. Studies suggest the brain’s capacity to make good judgments on reasoning and planning matters doesn’t mature until the early or mid-20s.

Last year’s Alive at 25’s $1 million-plus costs was supported by the $35 tuition each student pays, as well as hefty grants from insurance and automotive companies and dealers. The program is sponsored by the S.C. Chapter of the National Safety Council and is modeled on programs elsewhere in the nation. Parents are encouraged to attend and sit in the back of the room. Classes average from 15-25 students.

•  Tickets. Beginning in 2009, this Office of Highway Safety program has put vivid traffic safety messages on some 5 million tickets sold at most state high school sporting and extracurricular events. The cost: $85,000 in federal funds.

“That teenage audience is a hard group to reach, with all their social media,” said Office of Highway Safety director Phil Riley, “but these get in the hands of teens and their parents and center on four major issues — drinking and driving, texting and driving, not wearing a seat belt and speeding.”

•  Simulators. Bought at a cost of more than $145,000 in federal grants over the past several years, the Highway Patrol’s three rollover simulators and one driving simulator last year reached a total of some 15,000 mostly young people.

“When a student sits down in the driving simulator, we set different programs,” said Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Bob Beres. “They find out how easy it is to be distracted and run over an object or a person, or run into a building.”

The rollover simulators spin and eject life-sized, unbuckled dummies.

•  Families of Highway Fatalities program. In this program, selected parents of young people who’ve died in avoidable traffic accidents speak to groups of students.

“The students are going to connect — they are going to think, ‘Wow, this could be my dad talking, this could be my mom sharing the story if I got killed,’” said program director Faith Turner.

Last year’s speakers appeared before 15,800 students at 47 schools.

Good news

from a recession?

Although South Carolina’s outreach efforts no doubt have a positive effect, the recession has been a major factor in declining teen driver deaths, said AAA Carolinas Traffic Safety Foundation president Tom Crosby.

“As the economy picks back up, there will be more teen deaths, because more teens will be driving more,” Crosby predicted.

Crosby said South Carolina lawmakers could take a major step in stemming teen deaths if they would adopt a graduated youth driver’s license, which would require teens to spend more time behind the wheel with their parent or guardian before turning them loose on the highway.

Turner said the important statistics are invisible: how many lives her Families of Highway Fatalities and other programs are saving because students get the message.

“Those are the numbers we will never see, but we know they are there.”

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