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Deaths of young teen drivers jumped in early 2012

WASHINGTON -- Deaths of younger teen drivers increased sharply in the first six months of last year, reversing a decade-long trend, according to a report Tuesday by state highway safety officials from around the nation.

Deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers in traffic accidents in the first six months of 2012 were up a combined 19 percent over the same period in 2011, according to the report from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Those who compiled the report said the improving economy has put more teens behind the wheel, but the use of mobile devices to text and talk while driving is a likely cause of more accidents.

There were 107 drivers aged 16 who died between January and June of last year, compared with 86 during the first half of 2011. Deaths of 17-year-old drivers rose from 116 in the first half of 2011 to 133 in the first half of last year.

The report by the association, which represents state highway safety officers, is based on preliminary state data that sometimes change. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to release more definitive data later this year.

Twenty-five states reported increases, 17 -- including New York -- had decreases, and eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change in the number of deaths.

"Despite our efforts, teens remain our most vulnerable population," said Kendall Poole, head of the Tennessee highway safety office and chairman of the safety association. "With the advances in technology, we suspect distracted driving deaths among teen drivers are rising."

Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the increase in deaths of teen drivers "should motivate governors and legislative leaders to make passage of stronger teen driving laws an urgent priority."

Over the past decade, deaths of novice drivers had dropped by more than half at a time when many states were imposing greater restrictions on teen drivers, including limits on taking the wheel with teen passengers or driving at night.

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