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Summer brings ‘100 deadliest days’ for Sonoma County teen drivers

Lisa Myers-Littler of Santa Rosa expects to become a licensed driver next week, hitting the road in the midst of the 100 deadliest days of the year for teen drivers, according to road safety experts.

An incoming senior at Santa Rosa High School, Myers-Littler, 17, accepts the AAA’s designation of the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day as the worst time for her under-18 cohorts to operate motor vehicles on city streets and freeways.

The evidence compiled by AAA of danger for 16- and 17-year-old drivers is compelling:

— The average number of deadly teen driver crashes goes up 15 percent during summer compared to the rest of the year.

— Over the past five years, more than 1,600 people have been killed in crashes involving teen drivers during the 100 days.

— Distractions, mainly teens using a smart phone and chatting with passengers, contribute to nearly 60 percent of deadly teen crashes.

The statistics are enough to chill a parent’s soul, but they did not startle Myers-Littler.

“A lot of teenage drivers are more focused on their phones than their surroundings,” she said, referring to time spent texting and checking social media at the wheel, both illegal under California law.

But why is it worse when school is out, she was asked this week in the midst of a driver training session with an instructor in the shotgun seat.

“Summer’s when they are texting a lot to see what their friends are doing,” Myers-Littler said, just after successfully pulling to the side of Jennings Avenue.

“Hey, I didn’t hit the curb!” she said.

Della Radtke, the instructor with John’s Driving School, said: “I can’t get the students to put their phones away for 10 minutes during class.”

But on the road, the no-phone rule is firm, she said.

Radtke also turns on music and talks freely with her students, asserting those distractions help clear their minds.

It works, Myers-Littler said. “It helps me relax.”

Besides, driving around with the radio on friends gabbing is how most teens will spend their time at the wheel.

John Paternoster, who has operated the driving school for 22 years, said the deadly pattern of teen-driving days makes sense. “They’re not in school during the day so they have more time,” he said, and on sunny days there are plenty of places for young drivers to go.

Teen drivers, age 16 to 17, have a bad record overall, according to the AAA. They are involved in 3.75 fatal crashes per 100 million miles driven, the highest of any age bracket but for people 80 and up, where the rate is 3.85 fatalities for the same number of miles driven.

The fatal crash rate for 18 and 19-year-olds is more than twice that of the safest age group, people in their 60s, according to the AAA.

In Sonoma County, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 were involved in 13 fatal collisions with 17 victims since 2012, according to CHP records.

It’s all about experience, or lack thereof, Paternoster said. That’s why California law requires that a driver under 18 must not — for the first year with a provisional license — carry passengers under 20 or drive from 11 p.m. to 5 p.m. unless they are accompanied by a licensed driver at least 25 years old.

Both rules, he said, are frequently broken but judges have no sympathy for those who get caught. The restrictions end when drivers turn 18.

One upshot of putting drivers behind the wheel as teenagers: The young brains make for “quick learners,” said Radtke, who has a humorous bumper sticker fixed to her desk: “Clear the road, I’m 16.”

Still, being on the road with trainees in their 30s “is a little bit more nerve-wracking,” she said.

The school’s BMW sedan has a brake, but no steering wheel, for the instructor.

It also has no sign identifying it as a driver training vehicle because other motorists tend to give marked student driver cars a wide berth, Radtke said, giving the aspiring drivers an unnecessary advantage.

The AAA also cited failure to fasten a seat belt and speeding as common factors in teen driver deaths.

Sixty percent of the drivers killed in 2015 were not wearing a belt, while speed was involved in nearly 30 percent of fatal crashes.

On the road, Radtke repeatedly asked Myers-Littler what the speed limit was and how fast she was going. Pulling onto the freeway is the only time she sometimes has to tell a student to step on it, Radtke said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.