Summertime sees surge of teenagers behind wheel

The thrill of finally getting the keys to parents’ cars and the freedom a license can bring seem to be more alluring for teenagers during the summer months. More teens obtain their driver’s license during summer; according to personal finance social media network WalletHub.

Unfortunately, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of deaths for 16 year-olds to 19-year-olds. The study also found this age group accounts for 30 percent of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries.

In Mississippi, teens can receive a learner’s permit to drive as early as 15 years old, meaning over 100,000 teens could be on Mississippi roads at any given time. Even though the state uses a Graduated Drivers License program in an effort to give teens more hands-on supervised experience before they take the wheel on their own, Mississippi has been ranked one of the worst states for teen drivers by WalletHub based on their study of safety conditions, economic environment and driving laws.

The Department of Public Safety Drivers License location of Brookhaven has not reported a significant increase of teen drivers this summer, but examiner Donna Breland says students are racing to get their licenses right after the year is up on their learner’s permit, which sometimes coincides with school letting out.

“As a whole, Brookhaven teens do a pretty good job driving, but you can’t forget that they are still teenagers,” said Brookhaven Police Commander David Johnson.

Brookhaven teens have their fair share of accidents, according Johnson. He said distracted drivers rear-ending other cars is the primary cause of the accidents and most of them occur over the weekend.

Johnson said that even though there are no texting and driving laws in place in Mississippi, they have ways of dealing with distracted drivers who are hazards on the road.

“We can issue a careless driving ticket if it becomes enough of a distraction,” said Johnson. He added BPD also makes themselves as visible as possible in high traffic areas such as Brookway Boulevard.

Although the state has one of the highest rates for teen auto fatalities, this year the local highway patrol has dealt with very few accidents involving teens. Staff Sgt. Rusty Boyd with Mississippi Highway Patrol Troop M said that the area has been blessed.

During the school year, Boyd worked on a program with C Spire in area schools that primarily focused on distracted driving, specifically about how dangerous cell phones can be.

Boyd said the program may have played a part in cutting down on the number of teen accidents. He added that distracted driving is a big issue for teenagers. They are more susceptible to distractions such as peers in the car or cell phones.

According to distraction.gov, the official U.S. government website for distracted driving, thousands of people are killed every year because of distracted driving. The study also found that more than 660,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone at any given time and the youngest and most inexperienced drivers are at the highest risk. According to the group, texting and driving is by far the largest distraction currently on American roads.

“They (cell phones) are a great tool but can also be a liability,” said Boyd. He added that if you sit and watch drivers on any road in the local area at any point in time, you will see teens and adults using their cell phones while driving.

“Be safe and worry about what you are doing,” advised Boyd. He added that even though they have been lucky this year so far, it could change at any moment.

Boyd said he feels like texting-and-driving legislation is on its way, whether it’s just for teens or for everyone.

Over the years, the state legislature has been faced with dozens of bills that call for a ban on texting and driving, but all have died.

In April, a bill almost passed in Mississippi that addressed the issue. Mississippi Senate Bill 2613 would have prohibited texting while driving and social networking while driving. Both House and Senate approved the bill but in the last few minutes before the closing of the 2014 session, Rep. Bill Denny made a procedural motion that killed the fairly well-agreed-upon law.

Ninety three percent of Mississippi drivers backed a ban on texting and driving and 43 percent agreed that it was the biggest safety threat on roads and highways, according to an Allstate Insurance survey.

Currently, the only cell phone restrictions in the state apply to bus drivers and teenagers with learner’s permits or probationary license holders.

Brookhaven native and state Sen. Sally Doty was a major supporter of the bill and several others that have also died.

“As Mississippians, we don’t like people telling us what to do,” said Doty. “Even if it is for our own good.”

Doty has three teenagers of her own, and stresses the importance of not using cell phones while driving.

Some of her opponents questioned how texting is different than any other distraction, such as putting on lipstick or eating a burger. Doty has been combating these misconceptions.

She said a phone, as opposed to a burger, requires cognitive, visual and manual attention. Texting may seem like a quick diversion, but if it takes attention off the road for five seconds at 55 miles per hour, it is equivalent to driving the length of a football field blindfolded, according to the study by distraction.gov.

Another issue brought up by opponents was a concern about enforcement of the law by police officers, sheriffs and highway patrol. But Doty feels that lawmakers will be able to address these concerns in the next legislative session.

“If it’s passed by our elected officials, we would do our best to enforce it,” said Boyd. He sees no problems with local enforcement.

Forty-four states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have banned text messaging for all drivers.

“I think it’s high time that Mississippi joins the ranks of those states,” said Doty. She added that she will continue pushing the same type of bill next year.