Fewer Teens Jumping Behind the Wheel

February 27, 2008

The ink wasn’t even dry on my new driver’s license, but heading home in my “new” car – actually a fairly ancient and rickety Chevy Bel Air – I was on top of the world and convinced I could win the Indy 500. Charging into a hard turn, near my home, I got my first lesson in driving dynamics, spinning my way through the corner and barely missing a tree.

That’s not all that different from the experience of many American motorists, when they first get their licenses. As teens we feel a mix of infallibility and invulnerability. Unfortunately, far too many young drivers learn their mistakes only as the result of devastating crashes.

Though kids may have the quickest reflexes, their judgment is often clouded by inexperience, a situation worsened by distractions like cellphones and friends. Meanwhile, the fatal crash rate among 16-year-olds driving at night is double that in daytime.

So, reports a new story in the New York Times, there’s a growing effort to limit the number of teens who get behind the wheel – at least without some oversight. Restricted licenses are becoming commonplace, the paper reports, while adding that with the high cost of insurance, many 16-year-olds are simply choosing, on their own, to wait before they jump behind the wheel.

Only 29.8 percent of U.S. 16-year-olds were licensed, in 2006, down from 43.8 percent, in 1998, reveal data from the Federal Highway Administration.

New Jersey, where I grew up, is the only state in the U.S. where you have to wait for your 17th birthday to drive. Every other state starts kids out at 16 or younger – some farm states authorize learners permits as early as 14.

But new laws have added a variety of restrictions: in some states, a parent must be present in the vehicle, others restrict the number of passengers. Illinois, the Times reports, sets a nighttime driving curfew of 10 PM, during weekdays, 11 PM on the weekend.

But often, it’s money that makes us change our ways, and insurers are sharply increasing their premiums for covering young drivers or adding a teen to the family policy – sometimes by as much as 100 percent above the base rates.

Social trends may also be playing a factor. Back in the day, you simply weren’t cool without a set of wheels. It almost didn’t matter what you drove when I got my license. Today’s teens often expect fancy wheels, and parents seem surprisingly eager to supply them. The same school lot where I parked my ancient Chevy is now filled with Land Rovers and BMWs. Yet there’s a growing number of teens who see cars not as a ticket to freedom but an environmental threat to be avoided.

Whatever the reason, delaying the automotive day of reckoning – or at least requiring young drivers to get better training – is good for all of us.

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