The percentage of teens dying in nighttime crashes is rising along with a rapid increase of cell phone use among young drivers, according to a new Texas Transportation Institute study released today. Researchers at the Texas A&M University-based institute analyzed Fatality Analysis Reporting System data collected by by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1999 through 2008, the most recent 10-year period available. Looking only at the fatal crashes where light conditions were either “dark” or “dark, but lighted,” the researchers found that the percentage of nighttime fatal crashes involving drivers 20 and older rose nearly 8 percent over the previous decade but more than 10 percent for teen drivers ages 16 to 19. This trend is happening despite the fact that the number of teen drivers involved in all and nighttime fatal crashes dropped.
Drinking while driving also fell among teens, leading researchers in College Station to conclude that teens’ unfamiliarity with nighttime driving was one of the chief contributors. “Driving at night is a common risk factor for all drivers, but it is particularly dangerous for young drivers,” the study found. “Distractions, speeding, low seat belt use and alcohol are also among the most frequently-faced dangers, but it is the nighttime risk that ranks at the top of the list for the youngest motorists on the road, primarily due to a combination of the visibility challenges caused by dark conditions, slower response time brought about by fatigue, and a lack of experience driving under such conditions.”
Cell phone use, while documented more recently as a troubling driving distraction is not always collected uniformly as a factor in police reports, the basis of the federal data examined for the study. “There is, however, substantial evidence demonstrating that cell phone use is growing rapidly (far more quickly for teenagers than it is for individuals age 20 and older) and that much of that use takes place behind the wheel,” the study’s authors wrote. “Clearly, the use of a cell phone complicates the driving task substantially for all drivers. The effects of this risk factor are compounded by the compromised vision and fatigue that characterize the nighttime driving environment, and for teenagers, the problem is further exacerbated by a lack of driving experience.”