By Eric M. Johnson
Feb 26 (Reuters) - Teen driving deaths in the United States increased in the first six months of last year, further eroding a decade-long reduction, possibly as a result of more accidents caused by texting and talking behind the wheel, state highway officials said on Tuesday.
Deaths of drivers ages 16 and 17 increased roughly 19 percent, to 240 in the first six months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011, according to a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Officials who compiled the report said the improving economy has put more teens behind the wheel, but use of mobile devices to text and talk while driving is a likely cause of more accidents and fatalities.
The increases came after 16-year-old driver deaths dropped by nearly two-thirds, to 157, between 2000 and 2010. Fatalities of 17-year-old drivers were cut by more than half in the same period, to 253, the data showed. But the downward trend ended in 2011.
"Teen drivers are not only a danger to themselves, but also a danger to others on the roadways. So these numbers are a cause for concern," said association Chairman Kendell Poole.
The numbers, while preliminary, were still better overall than in the previous five to 10 years, a spokesman for the group said.
Decreases in driver deaths from 2003 to 2010 have been attributed to states' new and strengthened graduated driving laws that placed restrictions on inexperienced drivers.
But those laws, some of which were introduced in the 1990s, need to be revised to meet with changes in technology, said spokesman Jonathan Adkins. He said all states should ban cell phone use for new drivers, limit passengers per car and keep teens off the road at night, among other restrictions.
"This isn't some mystery illness," Adkins said.
States should also work to increase the role parents play in enforcing safe driving practices, officials said.
Among specific age groups, deaths of 16-year-old drivers increased by 24 percent in the first half of last year, while deaths of 17-year-old drivers rose by 15 percent, according to preliminary data compiled across 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Overall, 25 states reported increases in teen driving deaths in the first half of last year, 17 had decreases, and eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)