We're talking about young people. They shouldn't be dying. Most of these crashes are preventable. A lot of them are due to inexperience or poor driving experience that can be prevented. —Jenny Johnson, Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program
WEST VALLEY CITY — The two Hunter High School seniors were driving less than a block, but passenger Chelsea Patterson was keeping an eye out for driver Brook McKee seated next to her.
McKee had flipped on her turn signal and was waiting to turn left when Patterson leaned forward.
"I thought you were going to go, and I was like, 'Whoa,'" she explained to her friend.
But Patterson, 18, feels safe with McKee. She doesn't like to drive and especially hates driving others, but she rode with McKee and friend Kahai Brock to lunch at Brock's house.
"For me, personally, when I have my friends, I take more care because I want to protect their lives," said McKee, 18. "When I have someone in my car, I'm definitely more careful. I don't want to be responsible for their lives, and I don't want us hurt — any of us."
McKee said she designates someone to handle the radio and tries to focus on the road instead of the people in her car. She said she tries to listen to the conversation but concentrates on driving because, "It's kind of a worry for me."
According to a study recently released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, McKee and Patterson's diligence and concerns about teenage passengers are warranted. The study showed that for 16- and 17-year-old drivers, having a fellow teenager in the car can increase risky behaviors, such as speeding, late-night driving and neglecting to use a seat belt.
For example, the study showed that a 16- or 17-year-old driver whose likelihood of speeding is 30 percent when driving alone will jump to a 44 percent chance while transporting two passengers and 48 percent when transporting three or more passengers.
Of the 9,578 fatal crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers that occurred nationwide between 2005 and 2010, 57 percent involved at least one passenger.
"What we know is that passengers in a car with a new driver are very, very serious," AAA Utah spokeswoman Rolayne Fairclough said. "If you think about it, you … have a new driver whose skill sets are really lacking. It's a new driver who is still not a great driver, and it's difficult for them to manage driving their car and (working) with distraction."
Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for teenagers, and teenage drivers "are involved in more crashes per mile driven than drivers of any other age group," the study said.
Just last year, two students at Hunter High School were killed and two others injured when the car they were riding in collided with another vehicle at 4100 South and 5600 West.
The group of four was leaving the school for lunch around 12:15 p.m. May 9 when the crash occurred, killing students Jacob Armijo and Avery Bock, both 16. The driver of the other vehicle sustained serious injuries but survived.
Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said that, technically, all of the district's schools have closed campuses, but students often leave for lunch and additional classes and programs.
"We recognize our kids leave campus," Horsley said. "It's not even a policy. We just encourage our kids to stay on campus unless they have a reason to leave (for) myriad safety reasons.
He said Armijo, who was driving, was doing so erratically and at a high rate of speed at the time of the crash. If the student hadn't been on the road, the accident would have been avoided, Horsley said.
McKee said she doesn't like driving around other teenagers, "especially in the school parking lot, because they don't care who's around."
Brock said, in her experience, boys tend to drive more recklessly.
"There's a huge difference between boys and girls," she said, as a car accelerated and gunned its engine. "That was a boy."
"It's part of the masculine thing," sophomore Eric Gray said, conceding that male drivers aren't above showboating but noting that all teenage drivers can be pretty bad. "Teen drivers are the worst. They're inexperienced. They have their phones, music, texts. They're more distracted."
Hunter High sophomore Neissa Dumas said she also has seen boys "drive crazier" when they have friends in the car in order to impress them. Those same drivers seem safer when solo, she said.
"When you get to drive alone, you focus more," Dumas said. "If you drive with friends, you won't focus on the rules."
The opportunity to learn and have these rules reinforced are among the reasons Utah has graduated driver's license laws, said Jenny Johnson, of the Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program.
The laws prohibit drivers from transporting anyone other than immediate family members for the first six months after they have received their license and prevent driving between midnight and 5 a.m. for 16-year-old drivers unless it's an emergency.
Law enforcement officers also can pull over someone under the age of 19 for no other reason than not wearing a seat belt.
"Graduated driver's license laws can have a positive impact on this," Johnson said. "We're talking about young people. They shouldn't be dying. Most of these crashes are preventable. A lot of them are due to inexperience or poor driving experience that can be prevented."
Since the laws were implemented in 1999, Utah has seen a 61 percent decrease in fatal accidents, she said.
Since 2007, when numerous state agencies combined to tackle the issue of teenage driving deaths though the Zero Fatalities and Don't Drive Stupid campaigns, the numbers have decreased by another 42 percent.
In 2008, 29 teenagers died on Utah's roads. In 2010, it was 25. When the 2011 numbers are released next week, they are anticipated to be slightly lower still.
Still, there is progress to be made.
"Seventy-five percent of the teens who were killed in 2011 were not wearing a seat belt, and that is just pretty shocking," Johnson said.
Parents are a crucial part of the equation, she said, and some school districts are already trying to involve parents in their child's driver's education programs.
The importance of parents was emphatically reiterated by Fairclough, who said parents need to step in where the laws do not.
"Ultimately, parents make the rules on how cars are driven," she said. "The no-passenger (law) is for six months after a young person gets their license, but it's in a parent's best interest to keep monitoring their child's driving and see if they are becoming better drivers. They need to keep this as a continual project to make sure these young drivers become the best drivers they can."
Parents can make and enforce house driving rules about passengers and coordinate and work with the parents of their children's friends to ensure that safe practices are implemented by young drivers, Fairclough said.
She also suggested presenting teenagers with various situations they could be in while driving or riding with friends so they know how to handle them.
"It's always good to empower your children with possible scenarios," Fairclough said. "You just want to make sure you safeguard those first few years of driving so these children can enhance their skills and become good, safe drivers."
Teen driving by the numbers
• Though the total number of 16- and 17-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes each year decreased by 44 percent from 2,006 in 2005 to 1,124 in 2010, the proportion of accidents involving teenage passengers was fairly constant over the six-year period, ranging from 41 percent to 43 percent.
• Overall, 16-year-old boys were the most likely to have had teenage passengers in the vehicle at the time of a crash, at 46 percent; 17-year-old girls were the least likely at 35 percent. At both ages, boys were more likely than girls to have been carrying teenage passengers.
• The prevalence of late-night driving — spanning 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. — increased from 17 percent with no passengers, to 22 percent with two passengers, and 28 percent with three or more passengers.
• The likelihood of alcohol use also increased from 13 percent when driving alone to 18 percent when driving with three or more passengers.