Nighttime driving is becoming more hazardous for American teenagers and the likely cause is talking and texting on cell phones while operating a vehicle, according to a study released Thursday.
The report by the Texas Transportation Institute said the proportion of fatal crashes at night involving drivers 16 to 19 years old nationwide increased 10 percent from 1999-2008. The percentage of nighttime fatal crashes involving drivers 20 years and older rose nearly 8 percent from 1999-2008.
While the increase in nighttime crashes in the older age group can be attributed primarily to alcohol use, the study authors pointed to driver distraction caused by talking and texting on cell phones as a likely cause of the increase in fatalities among younger drivers.
"We know driving at night is dangerous. We know using a cell phone behind the wheel compromises your ability to drive," said Bernie Fette, senior research specialist for the Texas Transportation Institute. "Put those together and you've created a perfect storm."
Nighttime driving carries inherent risks of decreased visibility and slower response due to driver fatigue. Those risks are even greater for teens who are inexperienced night drivers, Fette said.
The number of fatal crashes, including those at night, actually dropped between 1999 and 2008, but the percentage that occurred at night increased. In 2008, 4,322 fatal crashes involved drivers ages 16 to 19 years, with 2,148 of them — or just under 50 percent — at night, according to the study. In 1999, 6,368 fatal crashes involved drivers ages 16 to 19, with 2,875, or 45 percent, of them at night.
That same year, 44,803 fatal crashes involved drivers ages 20 to 97, with 18,601 at night. In 1999, the total number of fatal car crashes for drivers that age was 48,991, with 18,899 at night.
The proportional increase in nighttime fatal crashes went against the trend of overall crash fatalities, which dropped nearly 11 percent over the same time period, the study found.
Crash data came from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Although cell phone and texting data are incomplete in FARS reporting, the study authors pointed to the dramatic growth in cell phone use overall, especially among teens.
According to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group, cell phone subscribers in the U.S. grew from 86 million in 1999 to 262 million in 2008. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found cell phone use among teens had grown 58 percent since 2004. The same Pew report said 34 percent of teens reported texting while driving and 52 percent said they talked on the phone while driving.
Fette said the Texas Transportation Institute, which is part of Texas A&M University, had surveyed 20,000 Texas teen drivers and found only 3 percent cited night driving as a risk.
Many teenagers start using cell phones long before they are licensed to drive and believe they can multitask in any situation, even driving, Fette said.
"We have talked to a lot of kids who say, 'Look, it's not that difficult. I can text in my pocket,'" Fette said. "But being comfortable with technology doesn't add security when you use it in an environment where it creates danger."
Last year, the Texas Legislature considered a bill that would have banned anyone under the age of 18 from calling or texting on a cell phone while driving — even while using a hands-free device.
The bill passed the House but ultimately died without a vote in the Senate.