ATLANTA – Fatal car crashes involving teen drivers fell by about a third over five years, according to a new federal report that partly credits the drop to tougher state limits on younger drivers.
The number of deaths tied to these accidents fell dramatically from about 2,200 in 2004 to 1,400 in 2008, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
The CDC looked at fatal accidents with drivers who were 16 or 17. There were more than 9,600 such incidents during the five-year span and more than 11,000 people died in the crashes.
The rate of these fatal crashes has been declining since 1996. CDC officials credit a range of factors, including safer cars with airbags and highway improvements.
But experts say a chief reason is that most states have been getting tougher, curbing when teens can drive and when they can carry passengers.
"It's not that teens are becoming safer," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based research group funded by auto insurance companies.
"It's that state laws enacted in the last 15 years are taking teens out of the most hazardous driving situations," such as driving at night or with other teens in the car, he said.
Graduated driver's licensing programs, as they are called, began appearing in 1996 and now 49 states have them. Some are more restrictive than others, which may be one reason why death rates vary by state, Rader said.
The CDC found that Wyoming had the highest death rate, with about 60 traffic fatalities involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers per 100,000 people that age. New York and New Jersey, which have rigorous driving restrictions on teens, had the lowest rates, at about 10 per 100,000.
New Jersey and New York the most restrictive licensing programs — New Jersey essentially bans kids from driving until they are 17, and New York City prohibits teen driving until 18.
Wyoming has a graduated driver's licensing program, but it's somewhat lax. For example, younger teens are allowed to drive until 11 p.m., while other states force them off the roads starting at 9 p.m., Rader noted.
The report is being published this week in a CDC publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Associated Press writer Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.
CDC report: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr
(This version Corrects to indicate that number of deaths of all ages fell, not just teen deaths.)