WASHINGTON – Despite a rash of highly publicized traffic accidents that have killed 11 teens in Montgomery County this year, the number of youths killed there is not far out of line from recent years.
And that is what people must realize, according to experts who say the problem is too often ignored.
“There was this concentration of deaths recently, but this is something that goes on in the country every single day, and it’s a major problem,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“Teens are more likely to speed, less likely to wear seatbelts . . . they think they’re invulnerable, that crashes happen to somebody else,” Rader said.
State officials say they try to combat the problem, but it is hard because the public and the media largely do not pay attention until there is a high-profile tragedy like Montgomery County’s.
“It’s a joint campaign between the state police and different agencies, but it has to start at home,” said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a Maryland State Police spokesman. “Parents need to be more accountable. We’ll do our part, but you hope it won’t come to enforcement.”
Last year in Montgomery County, two teens between 16 and 19 years old were killed in traffic accidents. But traffic accidents killed 11 teens in 2002, while seven youths died in both 2001 and 2000, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data.
During the same period, a total of 354 teens died in car crashes statewide, an average of just over 88 per year.
Montgomery County never led the state during that period: Prince George’s County led from 2001-2003, when it averaged 16 deaths per year among 16- to 19-year-olds, and Baltimore County led in 2000 with 16 fatalities. Prince George’s County has recorded 10 teen driving deaths so far this year, police there said.
Since 1999, when teen highway deaths in Maryland peaked at 109, the state has had a graduated licensing program that limits the times young drivers can be behind the wheel and makes it easier for parents to revoke a child’s drivers license.
The effect of the law on teen driving deaths is hard to gauge: Since the law took effect in 1999, the number of teen highway deaths in Maryland has gone from 109 to 96 in 2000, then to 92, 80 and 86 last year.
But graduated licensing has reduced the number of traffic accidents involving young drivers, said Elisa Braver, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland Medical School.
“I think we can say that the law reduced crashes and it also reduced the number of licensed 16-year-olds,” Braver said. “Overall, I’d say it had a positive effect.”
Rader said that in other states where studies have been done, graduated licensing programs have reduced the risk of crashes among teens by 10 to 30 percent. But laws alone are not enough, he said.
“Those restrictions also need to be backed up by parental rules,” Rader said. “They need to be very aware of the risks, and very involved in restricting their teen’s driving.”
Rouse said that whenever the state police stop a minor for a traffic violation, a notification form gets sent to the driver’s parents, to make sure they know what happened.
“Kids aren’t going to tell their parents, but we will,” Rouse said.
The Motor Vehicle Administration also provides notification if a driver under 18 is cited for going more than 20 mph over the speed limit. State law also allows parents or guardians to suspend the license of a driver under 18.
Alcohol also continues to be a factor in accidents involving young people. Montgomery County police said that at least one of the accidents that claimed five lives in one September weekend was alcohol related, as well as a Saturday accident that killed a 16 year-old.
In 2003, federal accident data said 30 of the 86 youths killed on Maryland roads tested positive for alcohol.
Jessica Reich, of Maryland’s chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said parents need to start talking to their children about alcohol at a young age.
“If you start talking to them in high school, they’re already forming their own opinions, and their friends are their greatest influence,” she said.
But Rader said all teen drivers are at risk, whether they drink or not. Driving at night and carrying passengers all increase risk.
“With two or more teens in the car with a teen driver, the risk of a fatal crash can be as much as five times higher,” Rader said.
He added that the type of car can increase a young driver’s risk. High-performance cars encourage speeding, Rader said, while “big and boring is better” for parents concerned about safety. He said larger, four-door sedans with the latest airbags and other crash protection are the safest to drive, compared to small cars, which offer little protection, or SUVs and pickups, which are prone to roll over.
In general, Rader said, parents need to remember that no matter how responsible a young driver is, there is no substitute for experience.
“Something that happens on the road that would be easily dealt with by an experienced driver can easily become an emergency for an inexperienced driver,” Rader said.
-30- CNS 11-18-04