The number of fatal car crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers has continued to drop in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The annual number of deadly crashes with teen drivers fell from 2,230 in 2004 to 1,437 in 2008, a 36 percent decline, researchers from the agency's Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention reported in the Oct. 22 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The report, which coincides with National Teen Driver Safety Week, also noted a 38 percent drop in the annual rate of fatal crashes, from 27.1 per 100,000 population to 16.7.
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Both findings represent a continuation of a trend that started in 1996.
According to an accompanying note by the MMWR editors, graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs, which exist in 49 states and the District of Columbia, get at least part of the credit for the improvement.
The programs involve an extended learning period followed by an intermediate stage that includes restrictions on nighttime driving and teenage passengers before acquisition of full driving privileges.
North Dakota is the only state that does not have a GDL program.
Despite the reductions in fatal crashes, however, motor vehicle accidents remain the leading cause of death in teens, accounting for about one-third of all fatalities.
Therefore, the MMWR editors wrote, states should ensure that their GDL programs include all of aspects of the concept.
"As GDL programs evolve and additional evaluation results become available, states should reexamine their programs and consider implementing additional components that have been proven effective."
The editors added that existing laws on the minimum drinking age and seatbelt use should also be vigorously enforced.
For the current analysis, the researchers looked at data from the Fatality Analysis Report system maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
From 2004 to 2008, 9,644 drivers ages 16 and 17 were involved in fatal car accidents. Almost two thirds were male and more than a third were speeding at the time of the crash.
Crash rates varied widely across the country, from 9.7 per 100,000 in New York and New Jersey to 59.6 per 100,000 in Wyoming, although the MMWR editors said the interstate variation should be interpreted with caution because many factors that vary by state can contribute to crash risk.
Of drivers with information about blood alcohol content, 79 percent did not have any alcohol in their system.
Of those who had been drinking, nearly three-quarters had a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit 0.08 g/dL for adults 21 and older.
The editors noted some limitations of the analysis, including the fact that population-based crash rates do not account for driving exposure and the inclusion of fatalities occurring within 30 days of the accident only.