THURSDAY, Oct. 21, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Graduated driver licensing programs that put restrictions on new drivers are one reason why fatal traffic crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers in the United States fell 36 percent between 2004 and 2008, says a U.S. government study released Thursday.
The decrease -- from 2,230 to 1,437 -- is part of a longer downward trend. Since 1996, rates of fatal crash involvement for 16- and 17-year-old drivers have fallen by more than 50 percent, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers.
Still, crashes remain the leading cause of death for teens in the United States, though most are preventable, the report said.
The CDC examination of 2004-08 national and state data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System also found that of the 16- and 17-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes during those years, 65 percent were male and 35 percent were female.
Of the 11,019 people who died in crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers, 37 percent were the drivers themselves; 31 percent were passengers of young drivers; 18 percent were drivers of other vehicles; 7 percent were passengers in other vehicles; and 7 percent were other road users, such as pedestrians or bicyclists.
State by state, the number of fatal crashes involving these 16- and 17-year-old drivers varied widely, ranging from 9.7 per 100,000 in New York and New Jersey to 59.6 per 100,000 in Wyoming.
Graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs, which are used in 49 states and the District of Columbia, have contributed to the decrease in fatal crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers, said the study authors. These programs place restrictions -- such as no nighttime driving or no driving with teen passengers -- on new drivers while they develop their road skills.
Previous research found that graduated licensing programs can reduce newly licensed drivers' crash risk by up to 40 percent, according to the study, published Thursday in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
"These trends show both how much progress we have made -- and how much more we can make -- to reduce motor vehicle crashes, which remain the number one cause of death for teens in the United States," CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden said in an agency news release.
"This is a call to action to teen drivers, parents and communities. It's not right that teens would lose their lives on U.S. roads when there are proven methods for helping teens be safer drivers," he added.
A new CDC campaign, called Parents Are the Key, aims to educate parents about the important role they can play in keeping teen drivers safe.
"Teen drivers are nearly four times more likely than more experienced riders to crash, largely due to teens' lack of driving experience," Dr. Grant Baldwin, director of the CDC's Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said in the news release.
"Proven measures, including GDL and parental involvement, can reduce the toll of deaths and injuries among teen drivers and protect the lives of others who share the road with these new drivers," he added.
The CDC recommends that parents and teens sign a written agreement spelling out safe driving practices and the consequences for failing to adhere to them.
The Nemours Foundation offers rules of the road for teen drivers.