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‘I think this is going to be a very bad year’: Recent teen driving deaths alarm experts in Mass.

A memorial of bouquets in Marshfield marked where a Norwell teen died in a crash.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Their deaths occurred in horrifying succession: On Feb. 12, an 18-year-old died after crashing into a guardrail in Dover. On March 18, another 18-year-old was killed after driving off a causeway in Marblehead. A day later, a 16-year-old driver crashed into a tree in Marshfield, killing a 17-year-old passenger.

At a time when motor vehicle crash fatalities are surging nationwide, the recent deaths of three Massachusetts teenagers have alarmed experts, who fear what the warmer months portend for the state’s youngest drivers.

“I have always seen an increase in teen fatalities in the spring,” said crash reconstructionist and retired state trooper Ross Panacopoulos, owner of Triad Driving Academy in Beverly. “These kids have been pent up for two years and I think this is going to be a very bad year for teen fatalities, in my opinion, just from what I’ve seen in the past and from what seems to be transpiring now.”

According to preliminary state Department of Transportation data, crashes involving drivers age 20 and younger in Massachusetts plummeted from just under 22,800 in 2019 to roughly 16,400 in 2020, when COVID restrictions dramatically reduced the number of people on the roads. But that number has jumped 31 percent to just over 21,500 crashes involving young drivers in 2021.


Fatal motor vehicle injuries among this age group have continued to tick up throughout the pandemic, however, from 32 deaths in 2019 to 35 in 2020 and 43 in 2021.

From 2020 to 2021, driving got even more dangerous for 16- and 17-year-olds, MassDOT figures show: While motor vehicle deaths dropped from seven to five, collisions involving the state’s youngest drivers spiked nearly 39 percent, from more than 4,300 in 2020 to about 6,000 last year, down from about 7,000 collisions in 2019.


“When we see increases across the board, it’s no surprise then that teens are involved in that as well,” said Ryan Pietzsch, program technical consultant for driver safety at the National Safety Council.

Law enforcement officials say the recent crashes involving teenagers in Dover, Marblehead, and Marshfield are still under investigation.

Teens and cars have long been a deadly combination. After firearms, motor vehicle collisions are the second leading cause of death for US teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although teens drive less than adults, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for driving-age teens is almost three times the rate for drivers ages 20 and older.

Traffic fatalities have surged nationwide since the pandemic began. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 38,824 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, the highest number of traffic deaths since 2007. Traffic fatalities continued to climb at a record pace in 2021: new NHTSA projections show an estimated 31,720 people died in motor vehicle crashes from January through September 2021, an increase of roughly 12 percent from the first nine months of 2020.

Massachusetts, too, has gotten more dangerous for drivers. Last year, 414 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes — a 21 percent increase from 2020, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Transportation. The state’s 2021 death toll was the highest recorded since 2007. According to a National Safety Council analysis, the number of vehicle fatalities increased faster in Massachusetts from 2020 to 2021 than in all but three other states — Idaho, Minnesota, and Nevada.


When the coronavirus shut down the country, drivers of all ages, enticed by emptier roads, became more reckless — prone to speeding, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and failing to buckle up, experts believe. This risky behavior persisted even as the nation reopened and traffic volume rose.

Anxiety and depression have also surged during the pandemic, particularly among adolescents and young adults. Dr. Christopher Landrigan, chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, said mental anguish may be playing out on the roadways.

“In my day job, we’re seeing all kinds of children coming into the hospital with behavioral health crises, depression, suicidal ideation, the works. It’s not hard to put the dots together,” Landrigan said. “They’re taking risks. They’re not being as cautious. And unfortunately, you see some of these real tragedies take place as a consequence.”

Compared with older adults, teen drivers are not only less experienced, but they’re more likely to take risks as their brains continue developing. Teenagers, Landrigan noted, are also more prone to falling asleep at the wheel, especially late at night.

“Younger people have a much more powerful what the sleep scientists would call a ‘sleep switch’ than do older people,” Landrigan said. “In other words, as they begin to become fatigued, that switch in the brain that regulates whether you’re awake is . . . actually more prone to flip than for somebody in their 40s or 50s.”


In 2007, after an Army Reserve major was killed by a teen driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel, Massachusetts lawmakers imposed stricter penalties on “junior operators” ages 16½ through 17 who violate restrictions to the state’s graduated driver-licensing program. Under state law, junior operators are prohibited from driving unsupervised between 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. and carrying non-sibling passengers under the age of 18 during the first six months of licensure.

Before 2007, junior operators who violated those restrictions were fined a maximum of $35 for their first offense and between $75 and $100 for any later offense. To reduce the risk of sleep-related collisions among teenagers, legislators significantly increased the penalties, starting with a 60-day license suspension for a first offense, and a 180-day and one-year suspension for the second and third offenses.

The harsher punishments sharply decreased collisions among 16- and 17-year-old drivers.

According to a 2015 study, coauthored by Landrigan, that examined the impact of those penalties, crash rates for junior operators fell almost 19 percent between 2006 and 2012. Fatal injuries among 16- and 17-year-old drivers have also declined over the years, MassDOT data shows, from 25 deaths in 2006 to 5 deaths in 2021.

Still, Panacopoulos believes the current restrictions on young drivers aren’t strong enough. He said nighttime prohibitions should start earlier, and restrictions on passengers should apply to inexperienced drivers regardless of their age.


“It doesn’t matter whether they’re 17 years old as a new driver or 19 years old as a new driver. You’re a new driver,” he said. “You’re not an expert.”

Pietzsch said parents need to model safe driving behavior before their teens ever sit behind the wheel in addition to setting ground rules for driving at home.

“The decisions that [teenagers] make are often very similar to the parents’,” he said. “With experience and monitoring, we can guide them in the direction that we want them to go.”

Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.