As we go into the Memorial Day Weekend, which includes a lot of highway driving, it’s worth pointing out that the carnage on the roads, which has been remarkably steady at 40,000 deaths annually, is now significantly down. In 2010, only 32,788 people died in accidents, still a huge number but down 3 percent from 2009 and the lowest level since 1949.


It’s not simply because vehicle miles traveled (known as VMT) is down, because it isn’t. VMT dropped in 2007 and 2008, but it was up again in the last two years as gas prices dropped. Some factors include increased seatbelt use (up to 84 percent in 2009), drunk driving crackdowns and — the missing element — safer teenagers.


According to Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, teenagers account for 10 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths. They get distracted easily, get influenced by friends in the car, and play with their electronic devices when behind the wheel. Teens think they're invincible, but highway accidents are the leading cause of death for them. Luckily, they’re not dying nearly as much as they used to — fatalities were down 60 percent from 1975 to 2009. Plainly, kids are staying off the roads. “If they’re not driving, they’re not crashing,” Rader said.


There are two reasons for this — graduated licensing programs, and the growing tendency of teenagers to delay driving, or even give up on it entirely. I speak from experience, since my 16-year-old is showing no sign of learning how to drive, though she has her learner’s permit. Why drive when all your friends are on Facebook?


Some of this is parental. According to Nationwide Mutual, “more and more parents are delaying when teenagers can start driving.” Nationwide’s survey showed that nearly one in three parents cite the high cost of insuring teenagers as a factor. Adding a teenager to a policy can increase premiums by 50 to 100 percent. Nationwide’s policies issued to teenagers are down 6.9 percent since 2008.


But graduated licensing is another big one. All 50 states now have laws that restrict kids with learner’s permits to driving with an adult in the car. The restrictions vary, but in many cases after a year they can drive themselves, but not their peers. And often there are bans on nighttime driving.


Since graduated licensing started in the mid to late 1990s, fatal crashes are down 69 percent for 16-year-olds, 3 percent for 17-year-olds and 43 percent for 18-year-olds. These are significant numbers. According to Bill Wade, who runs the Street Survival program for teen drivers, "Graduated licensing is giving them more time to learn [the safety rules], and keeping the number of teen passengers down in cars, a major factor in distraction."


For teens, the deadly 100 days are between Memorial Day and Labor Day. During the summer, 10 teen drivers a day die in the U.S., says Tire Rack. So its still dangerous out there, just not as dangerous as it used to be. (And come to think of it, there’s nothing wrong with communicating on Facebook.)


Here's the phenomenon on the ground in North Carolina, where teen traffic deaths are down significantly, as seen in this local news story from last summer:



The traditional story around this time of year is the Memorial Day Driving Tips piece on saving gas. I wrote one of those, but the tips are the same ones every year — don't carry too much junk in the trunk, avoid rooftop carriers, keep windows up on the highway, stop making jackrabbit starts .. .and throw away those stupid sports pennants. Be safe, and fuel-efficient, too.


See also:

Teen driving safety

Teen driving tips

Teen defensive driving

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Driving deaths down, and teenagers are a major reason
Dangerous wrecks on the highways are worst during the summer driving season. But the numbers are trending dramatically downward. Why? Take a look at teens, who