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States Need to Raise the Age for a Driver's License
Ronald W. Wolf

March 25, 2002

Recently, a 16-year-old in Gaithersburg died after he lost control of the car while street racing. Lackey High School in southern Maryland has had several students die this year after car crashes -- all of which were attributable to speed or poor driving skills.

The legal age to drink alcohol once was 18. The public deemed that too young for teenagers to handle responsibly, and now the legal age to drink is 21. Is it time to re-think teenage driving and raise the driving age to 17 nationwide?

When teenagers drive too fast and horse around behind the wheel, disaster strikes. Here are some facts:

* According to the American Automobile Association, 14% of all deaths due to motor vehicle accidents are teenagers. Teenagers only comprise 7% of drivers.

* Twenty percent of all accidents involve teenagers.

* Teen drivers killed in motor vehicle accidents had a youth passenger in the car 45% of the time.

* Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for 16- to 20-year-olds. Street racing in particular is a problem, although not new. But today street racers use police scanners and well-placed lookouts with cell phones to alert racers to the approach of the law, making it difficult for police to catch them.

Teen driving is being scrutinized from California to Georgia, and changes are happening. In Georgia, legislation is being proposed to raise the driving age to 17. Maryland and Pennsylvania have or are considering graduated driver's licenses, which initially restrict what hours teens can drive and how many other teens or children they can have in the car with them. After a year or two, teen drivers get the whole enchilada.

In Washington State, an effort is being made to let street racers use Spokane Raceway Park on Friday nights during the summer. Whether this is wisdom or folly will be determined. For $5.00 - and after a car check for drugs or alcohol - a teen will get on the raceway to race other teenagers who, presumably, aren't any smarter than the first teen. Although this may help to get racers off the streets, it would seem the potential to be killed is still there.

Something important is being missed by only restricting the hours teens drive or who's in the car or allowing street racers onto a racetrack. Maybe, with all the freedoms and access to money and technology, intermittent parental supervision, and damn fast cars, we need to conclude that 16-year-olds can't handle the responsibility.

Part of the problem is that the teens see that we have few limits. From business to extreme sports, people test the limits. Teens have pushed the limits with their hair or clothes for a long time; now it's tattoos and body piercing. Purple hair or a nose ring is not fatal; driving at 80 or 100 miles per hour may well be.

Parents are to blame for some of this; teenagers follow the examples they see their parents set. Life, for too many, is about what you possess and how fast you can get it, and what you posses can be the result of testing the limits of business or sports or entertainment. But testing the limits of a car by a teen has nothing to do with success in life, unless they seek careers in NASCAR.

Our automobile-centered, high-speed, high-technology society has to take some blame too. The car equals independence. Jump in and go whenever and wherever you want.

And part of it is that teenagers are teenagers -- not children but not adults either.

Parents may not want to take the hard line, saying we need help getting the other children to ball practice or school, and our teen drivers help out. This attitude is dangerous, even for parents who trust their teenage drivers, and conflicts with evidence that shows teenagers show off or become easily distracted while driving, especially with other teens or children in the car.

Adults need to help teens establish their priorities (although that may mean some adults need to get their priorities in order as well). By the way, are there links between driving (and the freedom that comes with it) and teen pregnancy, drug or alcohol use, AIDS, and, perhaps as important for a teen's future, failure to get homework done? These issues need to be studied.

Until there is legislation to raise the driving age, and it has to happen state by state, families need to step in. There are good reasons for teenagers to wait until 17 to drive besides safety -- money savings on a car or insurance, fewer worries for parents, more time for school. The idea is not to treat teenagers like children but to ensure they remain teenagers for another year.


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