I’m sure by now we have all seen the nightly news bits or the newspaper ads highlighting the debate ignited by insurance company data that claimed a dramatic decrease in the number of driving accidents, when looking at 16 year olds vs.18 year olds thus sparking a new push to raise the legal driving age to 18. While this data may seen like proof positive to worried, anxious parents looking to keep their kids safe and in one piece on the road, and may even cause them to institute their own rules of no driving until 18, it is far more than just changing the rules to a teenage right of passage in America. Most glaringly being that this is insurance company data, it smacks of yet another entity trying to avoid the high cost of premiums; it seems car insurance providers are now going the way of medical coverage providers that would not take on those with preexisting conditions, or employers who have gone so far as to not hire smokers, install gyms and practically make mandatory things like yoga classes and weight management one employer fired an employee for smoking in her own home. There is now a national push to remove junk food from most places rather than educate the public in healthy eating habits, more than one major city has forced restaurants to post all calorie counts in hopes to dissuade the public from buying fatty food, all in hopes of reducing healthcare costs. Now insurance companies want to hike up the driving age by as much as two years not really in an effort to save lives only a few bucks. Despite psychological and physiological findings that state the frontal lobe of a teenage, particularly 16 year old brain, is not fully formed thus impacting both judgment, problem solving and reasoning skills, implying it may be safer for them not to be operating a motor vehicle, not only have many, many 16 year olds learned to drive and keep their lives, but gone on to teach their children to do so.
Raising the driving age has more social and other consequences than people may perceive. It may impede some 16 year olds from working and learning responsibility as they get their first job, if they live too far from a public bus line and are not old enough to use their parents car not just to go to work, but to even begin to look for work. For families with many children it can add another 2 years of strain as parents try to juggle the hectic school and extracurricular activities of multiple kids, activities that may mean getting into a good college or not, a strain that can be eased by an older sibling picking up or driving home a younger one that may attend the same school. Speaking of the all important push to get into a good college, something that is becoming more and more competitive, no driving may mean for some kids no activities, no internships and no work, thus making the student look like less of the well rounded individual colleges are being more and more selective in seeking. Related to that, many college students rack up thousands and thousands of dollars in credit card debt and extra expenses that have noting to do with tuition and books; now imagine having an 18 year old going off to college that just got their license, has no vehicle yet, was unable to work due to no transportation and they go off to college without a checking account or any idea how to manage money, fill out a deposit slip or open a checking account. Think it won’t happen; in the wake of the ever-climbing gas prices towns across the country are discovering just how inadequate their public transit systems are. Many commuters looking for alternatives to driving to work cannot find them or at best all they can get is a car pool. Leaving the driving age at 16 helps level the playing field as more kids have the opportunity to learn to drive and to work. It also gives parents a natural opportunity to teach financial lessons before the child leaves home and can give them a sense of pride and achievement as they save to buy their first car, give them the foundations of a good credit rating as they maintain insurance payments, for many parents it can be a bonding tool with their teen child as they fix up an old car. This can also impact struggling families who depend on their 16 year old child being able to work to supplement family income or transport younger siblings, and while that may still happen or the family may be able to rely on public transit, it is not always the case forcing more families into hardship particularly in these economic times. Further, as the social fabric of our nation changes and people wait longer in having children, as grandparents become primary care givers for children or at the very least a fixture in a child’s daily life and as progressive, debilitating diseases become more and more a part of the healthcare landscape, it can drastically change lives and not for the better. According to an Oprah segment conducted and broadcast in the last two years up to 1 million children in this country run their household tasks that range from caring for younger siblings and sick parents to cooking meals, cleaning, helping with homework. And yes, for older ones that means working, paying bills, many while still going to high school or college some after the death or abandonment of a parent. For these children and others it can cause difficulty in getting ailing parents, grandparents or guardians to medical appointments, pharmacies, or adult day care programs, especially in rural areas. As more teens and young adults become defacto caregivers this could cost lives needlessly, when they cannot get ailing family members to a hospital or the area has slow or non existent ambulance service.
While no one denies that the alarming rate of teen accidents is far too high and even one child’s death behind the wheel is one too many, there are better ways to both bring down costs and save lives. In fact, this idea seems more than a bit redundant considering the reality that all insurance companies charge significantly higher rates for new and teen drivers coupled with the fact that many states already have graduated licensing programs that do not allow teens to have their full license until they are 18. Part of these programs and others require an over age, experienced driver be in the car, limits are placed on the number of passengers that can be in the vehicle, if any, mandates are in place for certain amount of driving hours before going to the next level or getting a full license and it prohibits driving during certain hours usually midnight to 5 am, a peek time for accidents among young drivers. One of the hidden dangers of just raising the driving age is the assumption that all or most of the falling accident rate has to do with the maturity of the diver bypassing, even discounting the experience gained from 2 years of driving on the roads, learning to navigate things like the hazards of seasonal weather, road construction along with other common occurrences. If we really want to cut down on teen accidents the better thing to do than just a blanket raising of the driving age is to institute a nation wide graduated licensing program as well as continued education efforts in the perils of drunk driving or driving while under the influence of drugs or the now growing trend of driving while sleepy. Another key thing would be to put drivers education courses into all schools or make them free community programs that one must pass to obtain a license, both written and practical instruction taught by professionals who can teach basic driving safety now largely left to parents who may be spotty, inconsistent, may not be up on current driving trends and road rules or just not the best person to teach driving to their child. For those who oppose a uniform program something like placing options in for passing a proficiency test to gain the next portion of the license could give those responsible drivers the reward of their maturity before the age of 18 and cut down on recklessness of those drivers who are just not completely ready for the road. If insurance companies truly valued the safety and well being of its most promising marketing targets every school and community would have a driving education, larger incentives or national laws would be backed by these well know insurance giants, not headlines that read increase the driving age. If parents want to be proactive in insuring their child’s safety behind the wheel they can impose their rues for driving, insist they take a divers education course before permitting them to drive; there are GPS type devices that can track where your child goes, what speed they drive, sudden accelerations and sharp turns. Cameras can be installed in the car to track what your child does inside the car, monitor unsafe things like texting while driving, too much cell phone usage, changing radio stations or CD’s excessive eating, discuss what you find with your teen and act accordingly. These are the ways to keep kids safe not some quick fix, band-aid bought about by companies looking to pinch pennies and stir up hype that could cause more harm than good, because just raising the driving age takes away experience and leaves too many things to chance.