Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Austin Davis, 15, of Sandy, practices driving. He is enrolled in a graduated driver's license program to help teens drive safely.

The problem isn't just that teens are dying on Utah's roadways, but that they are causing deaths, too, traffic-safety officials say.

As the "99 deadly days of summer" — a phrase coined by the Utah Teen Driving Safety Task Force — from Memorial Day to Labor Day continue to float by, a slew of state and private organizations are trying to raise awareness about the importance of safety on the road. A variety of campaigns such as "Don't Drive Stupid" and "Alive at 25" are targeting teenagers simply because they are among Utah's most dangerous drivers.

"We do our best to keep (teens) out of trouble, even though that doesn't always happen," said Morgan Brown, instructor of drivers education at Alta High.

In 2006, teens accounted for about 8 percent of all licensed drivers in Utah, but they were involved in 28 percent of all accidents, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.

In 2007, the department reported that 40 teens died in automobile accidents. Of that number, 22 were drivers. During the "99 deadly days of summer," 12 teen drivers were involved in fatal accidents.

Pam Davis knows her teenage son Austin is a careful and cautious driver — she's been with him as he learned. It's all the other people on the road who worry her, she said outside Alta High after dropping off the sophomore for his drivers-education class.

"It's the people who don't signal and just cut you off that worry me," Davis said. "I've tried to teach (Austin) to avoid those types of habits, and I think, like his other two siblings, he's becoming a good driver."

The graduated driver's license has contributed to Austin's driving skills, Davis said. The program requires students in drivers-education courses to complete 40 hours of supervised driving, 10 of those at night. It also includes a provision that teens cannot drive with others in the car unless an adult over 21 years old is present, too.

Davis said she has noticed the program's effectiveness while she's been driving with Austin. She said it makes it easier for parents to manage their children's driving because it's not her saying you can't take your friends, it's the law.

"(As drivers), we have a responsibility to follow the rules of the road," Austin Davis said. "When I first started driving I was very cautious, and I think I still am."

It's the goal of drivers-education programs to have students understand they're not only looking out for themselves on the road, but everyone else, too, Morgan said.

"We don't want to just give students skills, but the attitude of safety," Brown said. "The automobile is supposed to get us from point A to B as safely as possible, not as fast as it can."

Yet, teen and adult drivers seem to interpret safe driving practices differently. Whitney Stillman, a senior at Valley High, said she often sees her friends texting and talking while they drive, and "they can multitask pretty well."

A 2007 survey conducted by Dan Jones and Associates reported that about 37 percent of Utahns felt distracted driving was a "very dangerous" behavior, yet 75 percent of people do it on a monthly basis. Data on the number of deaths caused by distracted driving was unavailable. Half of the respondents ranked drowsy driving as very dangerous.

"Driving is incredibly complex. You're calculating thousands of things as you travel down the road," said Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for AAA Utah. "It is a learned skill set that's developed; that's why it's so important teens have the experience to cope with a variety of factors."

More than any organization or advocacy group, the public can lower the number of deaths on the road, said Robert Hall, director of traffic and safety for the Utah Department of Transportation. With the Zero Fatalities campaign, UDOT is supporting the idea that people's lives are in their own hands. Hall said that UDOT does all it can to maintain and create safe roads, but they can only encourage safe behaviors.

"Zero Fatalities seems impossible, but when you focus it on a personal level it becomes realistic for most," Hall said. "For example, with your family and friends what is the acceptable number of fatalities? Zero, right?"


E-mail: cnorlen@desnews.com