Teen drivers can be a menace on the highway. (AP)
Using a small pool of data collected in the first half of 2012, the Governor's Highway Safety Association said deaths of teen drivers jumped sharply, up 19 percent compared with a year earlier. The numbers reverse a decade-long trend that showed a decrease in teen driving deaths.

The GHSA says their data -- which looks solely at how many teens caused their own death and not a fatalities involving passengers, people in other vehicles or pedestrians -- is a good indicator of teen behavior behind the wheel. The GHSA said the increase in teen deaths should be a warning to states that they need to take early driver education and graduated drivers licensing laws seriously.

"Any increase in highway deaths is unacceptable, particularly among our teens," said Kendell Poole, chairman of the GHSA and director of the Tennessee Governor's Highway Safety Office. "We know from research and experience that teen drivers are not only a danger to themselves, but also a danger to others on the roadways. So these numbers are a cause for concern."

There were 107 drivers aged 16 who died between January and June of last year, compared to 86 drivers during the first half of 2011. Deaths of 17-year-old drivers rose from 116 in the first half of 2011 to 133 in the first half of last year. The report is based on preliminary state data that sometimes changes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to release more definitive data later this year.

Indiana and Tennessee lead the nation in teen driver fatalities, with 16 in each state. Louisiana had 15, Texas had 14, and there were 12 deaths each in Alabama, Illinois and Kentucky. Eleven states had zero teen deaths during the timeframe of the study, including three that had zero teen deaths two years in a row: Nevada, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

Twenty-five states reported increases, 17 had decreases, and eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change in the number of 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths.

Graduated driver licensing (or GDLs) are the most effective step states can take to cutting back on fatalities. Adopted by almost every state in the U.S., graduated licenses put caps on the hours teens can drive, how many other passengers they can have in a car, and insist they do 30 to 50 hours of practice before moving on to an unrestricted license.

But the strength of each GDL law varies from state to state. GHSA says states with more restrictive programs tend to have safer young drivers.

Barbara Harsha, Executive Director of GHSA, urged states to focus on strengthening GDLs. Data also shows that parent involvement in enforcing GDL laws and monitoring teen driving behavior is critical, so Harsha said states should consider implementing parent programs to help parents keep their teens safe.

"Parents have a huge responsibility to ensure safe teen driving behavior," she said. "States can facilitate this by providing innovative programs that bring parents and teens together around this issue."

Overall Numbers On The Decline

Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the increase in deaths of teen drivers "should motivate governors and legislative leaders to make passage of stronger teen driving laws an urgent priority."

Deaths of novice drivers dropped dramatically over the past decade at a time when many states were imposing greater restrictions on teen drivers, including limits on driving with teen passengers or driving at night.

There were 435 16-year-old drivers killed in all of 2000. That total dropped to 173 by 2011.

A similar trend occurred with 17-year-old drivers as the number of deaths dropped from 564 to 250 during the same time frame.

"We are still at a much better place than we were 10 or even five years earlier," said researcher Allan Williams, the report's author and former chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "However, the goal is to strive toward zero deaths, so our aim would be that these deaths should go down every year."

It's difficult to know exactly why teen driving deaths declined so dramatically, or why they now appear to be on an upswing, researchers said.

The long-term decline in teen driver deaths coincided with a historic, although more gradual, decline in traffic fatalities overall. That decline also appears to have been arrested. A report last week by National Safety Council said traffic fatalities rose 5 percent last year. It's the first increase since 2004 to 2005.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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