WASHINGTON – Fewer young drivers (search) died in accidents in 2003 than the year before, but the total still was 429 more than a decade earlier, the government reported.
The rise in fatalities from 1993 to 2003 among drivers aged 15 to 20 is likely related to an increase in miles traveled. More motorists are dying but people on average are covering more ground, which explains why the nation's death rate per vehicle miles traveled has fallen steadily over the decade.
Some 3,657 young drivers died in 2003, compared with 3,827 the previous year -- a decline of 170, or 4.4 percent, according to data being released Friday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (search).
The figure for 1993 was 3,228 deaths, or 13 percent less than last year.
From 2002 to 2003, the number of people killed in accidents involving young drivers -- drivers and their passengers, people in other vehicles, pedestrians -- fell from 9,251 to 8,666 (585, or 6.3 percent).
Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (search), said the decline in the number of young drivers killed last year may be due to the growing attention paid to real-world skills in driver education classes.
More people also wore seat belts last year, and that may have saved many young drivers. The government said that 72 percent of people aged 16 to 24 buckled up last year, compared with 65 percent in 2002.
The data also shows a steady decline in alcohol involvement in crashes among young people. Alcohol was a factor in 25 percent of the fatal crashes involving young drivers last year. In 1993, one in three such accidents was alcohol-related.
"People are starting to ask why. There was a time we expected we would lose some members of our high school class because of a car crash, but people are understanding that it doesn't have to be that way," said NHTSA's chief, Dr. Jeffrey Runge.
Not all measures showed improvement. The number of young drivers killed as a percentage of total drivers who died held steady at around 14 percent over the decade.
Runge said parents should limit nighttime driving. Studies also show that limiting the number of passengers in young drivers' cars also cuts down on accidents, Runge said.
The agency found that the percentage of young, female drivers involved in fatal crashes has grown faster than the rates for males since 1993. Women represented 28 percent of the young drivers killed in 2003, compared with 25 percent in 1993.
The government released the statistics to coincide with the start of a safety campaign it is sponsoring along with the group Recording Artists, Actors and Athletes Against Drunk Driving. The program is distributing a documentary about teenage drivers to 7,500 high schools.