Young drivers at greater risk for accidents

Anna Ewart

Four people under the age of 30 died on Minnesota roads the weekend of Sept. 21, and young drivers play a role in a disproportionate number of traffic accidents – their leading cause of death, according to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.

Last year, people under the age of 30 made up 40 percent of all traffic deaths in Minnesota.

Motorists between the ages of 16 and 29 have the lowest rate of seatbelt use of any age group, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

But seatbelt use is going up nationwide, and fatality rates are going down, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Still, three of the four young people who died during the weekend of Sept. 21 weren’t wearing seatbelts and were ejected from vehicles.

Jon Ulczycki, executive director of transportation safety for the National Safety Council, said there are social dynamics that might cause teenagers not to use seatbelts.

He said studies show teens are less likely to use seatbelts when they’re together, because teens generally want to fit in and be like their peers.

Experience also plays a role in the overrepresentation of young drivers in traffic accidents and fatalities.

In 2006, Minnesota drivers over the age of 65 made up 15 percent of the driving population, but they accounted for only 7 percent of crash-involved drivers, according to the Minnesota Office of Transportation Safety.

However, drivers aged 15 to 24 made up 16 percent of licensed drivers in the state, but were responsible for 28 percent of accidents.

Gail Weinholzer, spokeswoman for AAA Minnesota and Iowa, said attitude is an issue that underlies other factors like inattention, inexperience and speed.

She said young people often have a sense of invincibility and think they can handle other tasks, like using cell phones, when driving.

“It’s an even greater distraction for them because of their inexperience on roadways,” Weinholzer said.

Ulyczycki also said studies show young people are more likely to get into accidents when there are other people in the car, opposite of their older counterparts.

One of the three accidents the weekend of Sept. 21 involved passengers.

University student Angela Horrisberger, 29, said she got into more car accidents when she was younger, but now is more concerned about other drivers around campus.

“If there is a lot of traffic or people who don’t know where they are going, I worry,” she said.

Vehicle speed and alcohol use are factors playing a role in traffic accidents at every age.

According to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, “illegal or unsafe speed” is the contributing factor cited most often for accidents involving younger drivers.

In 2006, chemical impairment was a contributing factor for just more than 14 percent of accidents among drivers ages 20 to 24, more than any other age group. Drivers of all ages who were under the influence were involved in 3,284 accidents last year.

Alcohol was suspected, but could not be confirmed as a contributing factor, in one of the Sept. 21 accidents.

Also, two of the three young drivers killed that weekend were men.

In 2006, men ages 20 to 24 were injured or killed in more traffic accidents than any other age group, based on gender. Men accounted for about two-thirds of fatalities in motor vehicle accidents from 1996 to 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

University student Keith Kariniemi, 25, said he doesn’t think about how dangerous driving is when he’s doing it, but he tries not to speed.

“Most guys like to drive fast,” he said. “Not this guy.”