Why "back to school" means watch the road

"Back to school" season is an exciting time for budding minds, but it can also mean broken bodies as teenage drivers hit the road.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. Although people ages 15 to 24 represent only 14 percent of the overall national population, the agency notes they account for 30 percent, or $19 billion, of overall costs related to motor vehicle injuries among males and 28 percent, or $7 billion, of the costs for injuries among females.

It's easy to see why teen drivers account for a disproportionate share of car accidents. Teens are the most likely to be distracted while driving, with texting and other new communication technologies a particular culprit, according to a new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).

Researchers say activities that divert people's attention away from driving are a common factor in teen crashes. The governors group cites National Highway Traffic Administration data in noting 15-to-19-year-olds made up 10 percent of all drivers who were distracted at the time of a fatal crash.

"Teens have the highest crash risk of any age group, and research confirms that distraction is often a factor," GHSA executive director Jonathan Adkins said in a news statement.

Another sobering statistic: 57 percent of all teens killed in crashes due to distracted driving were the teen drivers themselves, while the remaining 43 percent were passengers, other vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists.

Insuring teen drivers can be very costly, nearly doubling the cost of a family's auto policy, according to a recent study.

Meanwhile, the tendency to be distracted while driving can persist beyond a person's teen years. According to the GHSA report, 20-to-29 year-olds made up more than one-fourth of distracted drivers and over a third of drivers reportedly using cell phones during a fatal crash.

"Eliminating distraction caused by electronic devices and passengers, two of the main culprits for novice drivers, is essential, and back-to-school season is the perfect time to share this message," Adkins said.

The GHSA says close to two dozen states are using this time of year to launch education initiatives, as well as regulations and law enforcement, to discourage distracted driving.

New York state will have the nation's strictest distracted driving penalties starting in November. At that time, young and new drivers convicted of texting while driving will have their driver's license suspended for 120 days, even as a first offense. A second conviction will result in a one-year license suspension.