This is an issue that seems to come up every few years, go through several rounds of research and debate, and then ultimately get dropped as other concerns take its place in our national consciousness: Should the legal driving age in this country be raised? Would doing that actually help to cut down on the number of injuries and even fatalities that occur due to car crashes?
Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study showing that beginning drivers are more likely to crash if they are distracted than their more experienced peers. The report doesn’t actually bring up the old debate of whether or not to raise the legal driving age, but it certainly seems like a potential first volley, and – intentionally or not – demands that we think about the situation.
What situation might that be? How about the fact that the leading cause of death for teens in America is getting into a car crash? Every single day, eight teenagers die, and very often the cause is some sort of reckless behavior such as speeding, drinking, or getting distracted while behind the wheel. Or the stat from the CDC that says 16- to 19-year-olds are three times more likely to get into a fatal automobile accident than people who are 20 or older? If we can reduce the number of deaths and injuries by making people wait until they are older to drive, shouldn’t we do it?
Raising the Driving Age: Ongoing Debate
As mentioned above, this isn’t the first time that the question has been asked. The last time it seriously came to the forefront of the national conversation was probably in 2008.
The reason it became such a big deal then was mainly due toextensive research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that said, in a nutshell, “Raising the driving age saves lives.” They found that while 64 out of every 100,000 16-year-olds are involved in a fatal accident, only 59 out of every 100,000 17-year-olds suffered the same fate. And perhaps more importantly, when they compared New Jersey (the only state that doesn’t give out licenses to drivers until they turn 17) to other states, there was an even bigger difference: 18 deaths per 100,000 drivers, compared to 26 deaths per 100,000 drivers in Connecticut.
But both teens and – somewhat surprisingly – parents fought back against proposals to raise the legal driving age, and the measures failed in every single state where they were proposed. According to the nonprofit research group, “Parents get tired of being the taxis.”
The U.S. isn’t the only country that’s had a roller-coaster relationship with the legal driving age, either. Just this past year, a commissioned report from the British government suggested that the driving age be raised to 18 there because young drivers were responsible for 5 percent of the miles driven – but for 20 percent of serious accidents and injuries. Unlike in our country, though, lawmakers there seem set to move forward with the changes, regardless of how upset some people are.
Is our country simply stuck in its ways, or are we doing a good job of avoiding being reactionary?
Arguments For and Against
Obviously the argument for raising the legal driving age comes down to the belief that it will be safer, but there are typically a number of points that people use to back up this belief. Here are some of the most common:
- Teens are more likely to use newer mobile technologies that cause distractions. More likely? Says who? But we do know that as of the beginning of 2013, 47 percent of teens had a smartphone, and a quarter of teens said they were mostly accessing the internet on their cell phone. With the recent New England Journal of Medicine report that less experienced drivers are more dangerous when distracted, that seems like a recipe for disaster.
- The brains of teenagers are not developed enough to handle the responsibility of driving. Scientists used to think that our brains were fully formed by age 10, but not anymore. Teens may look like little adults, but the part of their brain the deals with decision-making and problem-solvingis a lot different from that of someone just a few years older. The frontal lobes are – literally – not fully connected, which means that they are more likely to make bad choices. When those choices happen on the road, it can end horribly.
- Driving is at least as dangerous as smoking or drinking. If you think about it, an automobile is essentially a two-ton missile that we’ve put into the hands of a 16-year-old and said, “Good luck.” People who want to raise the driving age often bring this up as a reason to finally make the plunge and do it.After all, smoking and drinking can cause serious harm to the person engaging in the activity, but bad driving can hurt far more people.
Of course, it’s not that simple, and there are plenty of valid reasons to hold off on raising the driving age:
- Many teens need cars to work. You may be thinking that no teen really needs to work, but you’d be wrong. There are a number of 16- and 17-year-olds out there who have to work in order to help their families make ends meet. If these teens weren’t able to drive and they didn’t have convenient access to public transportation (which many don’t), both they and their families would suffer.
- An entire population shouldn’t pay for the sins of a few. While extensive research shows that teens are statistically more likely to get into accidents, that doesn’t mean that all teens are reckless drivers. So, would it be fair to punish all teens because a small number of them engage in behaviors that cause accidents?
- Driving teaches responsibility. For those who argue that kids aren’t “adult” enough to handle owning and driving a car, here’s the rebuttal: simply by putting a teen into that kind of situation where their decisions make a big impact, it teaches them responsibility and helps them to grow and develop. In fact, if we took driving away, there would be a big question about where they would acquire these skills.
The Real Culprit: Age or Experience?
And, of course, there’s the big question: are younger drivers involved in more accidents due to their age or their lack of experience? There really hasn’t been a large-scale study done on “late” drivers (those who don’t learn until they are 20 or older), so it’s hard to answer this question with anything other than conjecture.
It certainly seems like there is at least some difference in the way we drive based solely on our age and development, but how much of one? Is it enough to overhaul the entire system?Perhaps the happy medium that many states have already come to is our answer. Rather than officially raising the driving age, a number of regions around the country have opted for Graduated Driver Licensing periods – many of which last until a driver is 17 or even 18.
Depending on the specific rules in each area, drivers may be restricted from driving at certain hours or carrying passengers under a certain age, or be required to drive with a parent or another adult to ensure that they really do understand the rules of the road and can follow them. Though these programs are still relatively young, studies show that they will reduce crashes by anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Ultimately, isn’t that what we all want?
About the Author:
Jeffrey Braxton is a trial lawyer in Fort Lauderdale who has devoted his career to the practice of personal injury law. As lead trial attorney for the South Florida Injury Law Firm, Jeff has litigated thousands of cases and is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, an exclusive group of attorneys who have resolved cases in excess of one million dollars.