It's been a deadly year on Minnesota roads, especially for teenage drivers who have been involved in twice as many fatal crashes in the first part of 2021 compared to the same time period a year ago.
As of Tuesday, eight teenagers have died in crashes while behind the wheel, a worrisome number for the Department of Public Safety as school lets out and the busy summer driving season gets started.
"Obviously we are concerned," said Lt. Gordon Shank of the Minnesota State Patrol.
The uptick in deaths of those between ages 15 and 19 has public safety officials appealing to parents to model good driving behavior.
"Teens see their parents drive, and that is a huge factor in their behavior," said Gordy Pehrson, a teen-driving expert with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety. "From the time they begin facing forward, they observe parents' behavior, whether they are aggressive or texting. The little ones absorb and are likely to follow the example."
Minnesota law requires that would-be teen drivers complete a minimum of 50 hours of supervised driving, including 15 at night, before getting a driver's license.
But even after a novice driver obtains a license, parental guidance and supervision should continue, Pehrson said. From 2010 to 2019, 51% of 16- to 19-year-olds killed in traffic crashes in Minnesota were riding with a teen driver. By contrast, only 4% of teens killed in that age group were riding with an adult, according to DPS data.
"When there is an adult in the car, the crash rate goes way down," Pehrson said. "Instincts take time to develop. Just because they have a license doesn't mean they are an experienced, safe driver."
Jenni Jones knows that all too well. She lost her son, Blake Asher, 17, when he hit a patch of ice and crashed near Lonsdale, Minn., in February 2020 while driving home from a friend's house.
Jones said her son took all the precautions to be safe: He wore his seat belt and didn't use his phone. But that didn't stop tragedy.
"You never think it will be your kid," she said. "Talk to them about driving on ice and snow, about slowing down. Have those conversations. Say it a number of times. Don't assume they know. I assumed he knew. He went through driver's ed."
With temperatures well into the 90s, icy roads are not a problem now, but summer is not the time to get lax on driving behavior, Shank said. That means wearing seat belts, staying off the phone, obeying the speed limit and not driving while impaired, which are the four leading causes of fatal crashes.
"We want to make safe driving something we do every day," Shank said. "Risks can be prevented if we focus on the matter at hand: driving."
Traffic safety advocates have often dubbed the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day as the "100 Deadliest Days" on the roads.
Nationwide, more than 7,000 people died in teen driving-related summertime crashes from 2010 to 2019 — an average of seven people a day — according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Last year may have been the deadliest summer in more than a decade, with 5,213 people killed in crashes in which a driver was between 15 and 20, according to Bumper.com, which used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and 2020 fatality estimates from the National Safety Council.
"There are more daily deaths in crashes involving teen drivers during the summer months than the rest of the year because teens tend to have more unstructured time behind the wheel," said Jake Nelson, AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research.
In Minnesota, teen drivers between 15 and 19 were involved in more than 52,600 crashes that resulted in a death or injury between 2010 and 2019, according to the DPS. In about half of those crashes, somebody between 16 and 19 died or was injured.
"Teen deaths are a big problem," Pehrson said. "Parents, it's never too late to have a conversation with teens about safe driving. If a teen fails a math test, they can make that up. If a teen makes a serious mistake while driving, you can't push the rewind button and take that over again."
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768