Although teen driving deaths are down sharply since 2008, when Connecticut passed one of the strictest teen driving laws in the country, the arrest on Saturday of a 16 year-old New Canaan girl, who allegedly struck and killed a Norwalk jogger with her SUV, shows that distracted driving by teens is still a serious problem, officials said.
State transportation officials said the issue is a public health concern.
Police said the New Canaan girl, who is not being named because of her age, had been using her cell phone before the March 24 crash that killed Kenneth Dorsey, 44. She has been charged with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle, using a hand-held telephone under age 18 while driving and failure to drive in the proper lane.
If convicted, the teen faces up to a year in jail on the negligent homicide charge. The charge of using a cell phone under age 18 while driving carries a 30-day license suspension and $175 in license restoration and court fees for a first offense, according to the state DMV.
State officials Wednesday urged parents not to put all their faith in their teen driver to do the right thing
"Parents want to trust that their child will do well, will follow the rules and will keep themselves safe,'' DMV spokesman Bill Seymour said. "We're trying to begin a discussion with parents about the studies that show that the executive functions and reasoning ability of a teenager's brain isn't there. It doesn't fully mature until a person is 25 years old. Teen drivers may be taking risks without fully understanding the consequences.''
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. State officials credit tougher teen driving laws with helping to reduce the number of 16- and 17- year-old drivers involved in fatal accidents in the state. Fatalities have dropped from a recent high of 13 in 2007-- the year before a tougher state law took effect -- to two in 2011, Seymour said.
Connecticut is the only state where police at the scene can suspend the license of a teen driver caught violating the law for 48 hours, Seymour said. A mandatory two-hour safety class that both the teen and a parent must attend can also be imposed, he said.
"Our findings show the beneficial effect of the tougher law and the massive amount of public awareness,'' the state DMV spokesman said. While there has been a 26 percent drop in the number of teen driving deaths nationally since 2001, in Connecticut that drop is 34 percent, and the difference is the tough laws and restrictions on the youngest drivers.''
But a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that almost half of the teen respondents had talked on a hand-held phone while driving in the previous 30 days, and close to 30 percent said they had texted in that time.
The state DMV has been sponsoring driver safety programs aimed directly at teens. One effort involves the medical staffs of two trauma centers, Connecticut Children's Hospital in Hartford and Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital. Two posters showing surgeons in operating suites and one with a teenaged girl calling her parents while her car is being towed make the point that distracted driving can lead to anything from the loss of driving privileges to serious injury and even death.
Education is also the focus of a program being offered on June 6 by the New Canaan police. The fatal accident involving the local girl was part of the impetus for the session, said Sgt. Carol Ogrinc, the department's youth officer. "But we've had accidents involving distracted driving in town and we felt something community-based would be helpful to offer,'' she said. The program is at 7 p.m. June 6, in the high school.
Seymour said that some providers are studying ways to do that, possibly by installing a chip in the phone. "I know that different companies are looking at ways to have the cell phone shut off when the engine comes on.
"We're attempting to deal with this issue from the front door, the back door and the side doors,'' he said.
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