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Nearly 90 percent of young drivers have recently sped, texted, or blown a red light—and some think that’s acceptable.

When it comes to American drivers who blow red lights, shred the speed limit, or text behind the wheel, Millennials really are the worst. A full 88 percent of motorists aged 19 to 24 have committed one of these road sins in the last month, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The foundation has called out the age group as the “worst-behaved U.S. drivers” in the midst of a startling rise in driver mortality. Traffic deaths surged to 35,092 in 2015—about 2,400 more than the year prior—and while 2016’s numbers are preliminary, deaths were already up 10 percent by mid-year. The trend had the director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fretting in October: “We have an immediate crisis on our hands, and we also have a long-term challenge.”

After reading the AAA report, a dumb-but-gut reaction to that challenge might be to confiscate the licenses of young motorists. “Alarmingly, some of the drivers ages 19-24 believe that their dangerous driving behavior is acceptable,” foundation head David Yang says in a press release. Here are details from the report, which is based on a survey of 2,511 drivers:

  • Drivers ages 19 to 24 were nearly twice as likely as all drivers to report having typed or sent a text message or e-mail while driving (59.3 percent vs. 31.4 percent).
  • Drivers ages 19 to 24 were 1.4 times as likely as all drivers to report having driven 10 mph over the speed limit on a residential street.
  • Nearly 12 percent of drivers ages 19 to 24 reported feeling that it is acceptable to drive 10 mph over the speed limit in a school zone, compared to less than 5 percent of all drivers.
  • Nearly 50 percent of drivers ages 19 to 24 reported driving through a light that had just turned red when they could have stopped safely, compared to 36 percent of all drivers.

There’s also the maddening detail that, even though they could’ve stopped in time, about 14 percent of these drivers felt it was “acceptable” to run a red light. Of course, motorists of other ages aren’t exactly guilt-free. While nearly 80 percent of people of all ages told the AAA texting or emailing from behind the wheel is “completely unacceptable,” a third of them said they had, in fact, texted or emailed while driving in the last 30 days.

The spike in traffic deaths in 2015—the biggest single-year increase in five decades—occurred despite lawmakers cracking down on distracted driving. Texting while driving is now banned in 46 states, and 14 states have outlawed motorists using handheld phones. Meanwhile, cities continue to experiment with laws and technology to rein in dangerous driving. Just last week San Francisco announced a new bill on “automated speed enforcement” that, if passed, would use cameras to slap anyone going more than 10 mph over the limit with a $100 fine.

The turnaround in U.S. traffic mortality remains a bit of a mystery, but it’s generally thought that a better economy has gotten more people driving. Gasoline is also much cheaper now, which puts more cars on the road for longer trips. There’s even a scholarly theory that cheap gas contributes to traffic deaths because, as described by Streetsblog, “when gas prices fall, collisions rise faster than mileage because people who don’t ordinarily drive much, like teenagers, start driving more.”

About the Author

John Metcalfe
John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.

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