With the deadliest stretch of vehicle crashes beginning in the summer months, officials are raising concerns about teenage drivers who will soon be sharing Minnesota and Wisconsin roads during the busiest travel time of the year.
Dubbed the "100 Deadliest Days," the roughly three-month period between Memorial Day and Labor Day accounted for nearly a third of all traffic fatalities in Minnesota and Wisconsin last year. Officials in both states say teenage drivers — due to several factors — are at a heightened risk for being involved in a fatal crash.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drivers ages 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely to be in a fatal vehicle crash than drivers 20 and older.
The CDC cites traffic crashes as the second leading cause of death among teens after suicide.
The latest available crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows crashes involving teens rose by more than 10 percent nationally in 2015 from the previous year.
To Gordy Pehrson, a coordinator for the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, the majority of crashes are preventable.
"When a teen dies in a traffic crash, people kind of dismiss it like it's some kind of right of passage and there's nothing anyone can do to prevent it," Pehrson said. "It can't just be swept under the carpet."
He and other transportation safety officials cite low seat-belt use compared to other age groups, as well as inexperience, risk-taking, speeding and distracted driving as risk factors contributing to higher-than-average fatality and injury rates for teen drivers.
According to the NHTSA, more than half of all teens who were unbelted in a crash died. A recent study by AAA suggested distraction played a role in six out of 10 teen crashes, with the top distractions being other passengers and cellphones.
Despite making up a small portion of licensed motorists, teen drivers account for a substantial portion of vehicle crashes in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
In 2013, about 4.5 percent of licensed drivers in Wisconsin were between the ages of 16 and 19 but accounted for 10.6 percent of crashes, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Minnesota teens ages 15 to 19 only made up 6.2 percent of licensed drivers in 2015 and were involved in 16.4 percent of crashes, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The department noted some 515 people died in fatal crashes that involved teens and teen drivers between 2006 and 2015 — 1,910 of whom suffered serious injuries.
Impacts on communities
Officials in Dakota County logged a state-leading six crashes where a teen died between 2013 and 2015 — all of whom were occupants of a vehicle. The latest available data also showed the county as having the third-highest number of severe injuries for teens involved in crashes in that three-year time frame.
St. Croix County had three fatal crashes involving teen drivers between 2013 and 2015, according to WisDOT.
"When teens are involved in crashes, they impact a lot of people, not only themselves but families, schools, communities and a lot of other people as well," Pehrson said.
On Jan. 30, authorities in New Richmond, Wis., responded to a crash just after 1 a.m.
Four young people were on their way back from a party when the Volkswagen Passat Jetta they were traveling in struck a utility pole after overturning in a ditch, according to police.
A 21-year-old man and 18-year-old woman, as well as the driver, Dalton Mundle, suffered injuries.
Jordan Tulgren, 19, was belted in the back seat, according to police. He died at the scene.
Authorities allege Mundle, 19, had a 0.09 blood alcohol level. He is charged with homicide by intoxicated use of vehicle and operating while intoxicated causing injury.
Though teens continue to be at a heightened risk for traffic crashes, overall traffic fatalities have seen steady declines over the past two decades, according to federal data.
Pehrson speculates that safer roads and higher safety standards for vehicles are among the changes that have led to the overall decrease. But state laws aimed at new drivers have cut teen driver deaths nearly in half over the past decade in Minnesota, according to state data.
Minnesota and Wisconsin laws that limit the number of teenage passengers and restrict night and early morning driving has led to a substantial reduction in crashes among teen drivers, officials said.
Cellphone use, including handless devices, are also banned for teen drivers. Penalties for teenage drivers can include fines as well as a forfeiture of their license until they turn 18.
Minnesota driving schools are also required to provide 90-minute training courses for parents that cover risks, laws and best practices for parents with teen drivers.
The classes are optional, but officials have touted their ability to reduce teen driver crashes by helping parents understand the risks and the laws.
"One of the issues is once a teen gets a license, their role as a teacher, monitor are done," Pehrson said. "If you think that your teen is a really good driver, and you don't think their behavior changes when you're not in the car, wake up."
A focus on educating parents
Tony Turenne, a driving instructor at Safeway Driving Schools, said the parent classes tend to be heavily attended at the Woodbury, Minn., school where he gives behind-the-wheel and classroom instruction.
As an incentive, parents who attend the course receive a 10-hour credit that goes toward their teenager's 50 hours of supervised driving, a requirement in Minnesota.
But more practice helps, Turenne said, especially when helping new drivers develop the ability to scan and anticipate other drivers and potential hazards.
Posters lining the walls of the Woodbury classroom display statistics in no particular order on the number of people who die from items.
One poster reads that missiles caused over 2,500 deaths, while "BFFs" were responsible for close to 4,000 traffic collision deaths.
Though Turenne said he feels the posters' messages are overly negative, he tries to instill the same overall message to his students.
"It's a much bigger responsibility that they're used to when they're younger," Turenne said. "You're responsible for other people's lives when you get behind the wheel."
Pehrson also recommends parents draft a contract with their teen drivers and set firm guidelines for them, such as rules for how many passengers and when they can drive. The contract should also outline consequences for violating any part of the deal, he said.