published Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Tennessee tops in teen driving deaths

A report issued Tuesday shows Tennessee, along with Indiana, leading the nation for the number of teen driving deaths for the first six months of 2012 when compared to the same time in 2011, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The study cites improved economic conditions and fewer states strengthening the graduated driver licensing programs as reasons for the overall increase in 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths nationwide. However, local authorities cite teens not wearing seat belts and distracted driving as reasons for local teen driving deaths.

Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. John Harmon said for the entire year of 2012, there were 13 fatality victims between the ages of 13 to 19 in the Chattanooga district. Two were killed in a go-cart wreck. Another was killed in motorcycle crash in the 12-county area. Two of the deaths were in Hamilton County.

Seven out of the 13 traffic deaths investigated by the highway patrol involved teens who were not buckled up.

"That has been the No. 1 factor with the teenage fatality rate is not wearing a seatbelt," Harmon said.

Last year, Harmon said troopers focused enforcement efforts near high schools to educate teens and write citations.

"We targeted teens and [fatalities] still went up," he said.

Harmon also cited distracted driving as the other main contributor to teen deaths.

Teen driving deaths of 16- and 17-year-olds began increase in 2011, according to the study.

"Deaths for both 16- and 17-year-old drivers are relatively low on a historic basis," the report states. "Nevertheless, the upturn in deaths is a signal that renewed efforts are needed."

In Tennessee, the number of fatalities increased by 10, going from six to 16. Alabama also had a sharp spike of teen deaths, jumping from three deaths to 12.

Georgia teen deaths actually decreased by one, going from six to five, according to the 14-page report.

Nationwide, there was an overall increase in teen traffic fatalities from 201 to 240 -- an increase of 19 percent.

Megan Buell, public information officer for Tennessee Governor's Highway Safety Office, said there needs to be more education and enforcement to reduce the number of fatalities.

"I really hope that teenagers across the state understand the consequences and risks of making unhealthy choices behind the wheel. God forbid, if should something occurs ... it not only affects that child, it affects an entire family," she said. "Lives are shattered when we lose lives on Tennessee highways."

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