Watching your child get behind the wheel when you don't yet trust him to do his own laundry is a daunting moment. Driver's licensing ages vary between states. While many states require drivers to be 16 or 17, some states allow 14- or 15-year-olds to drive alone. Safety experts and politicians have proposed raising the driving age to 18. High schoolers craving independence aren't the only ones who question the wisdom of such a change.
Keeping teens safe is the primary argument for raising the driving age. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the fatal crash rate per mile driven is nearly twice as high for 16-17 year-olds as it is for 18-19 year-olds. Keeping minors from getting behind the wheel unsupervised could prevent injury and death not only to these teen drivers but for their passengers and drivers in other cars.
Many high schoolers don't have cars or even driver's licenses but do have a friend with wheels. Teens are most likely to have fatal crashes when they're driving with passengers, according to the IIHS, and the risk of a fatal crash increases with each passenger. (SEE REF. 2) So if your child's lab partner or crush can't load the gang into his car for a fast-food run because he's not old enough to drive, you don't have to worry about her safety as a passenger in the car with him.
Health concerns factor into driving age debates. Even if a teen can safely walk to a friend's house or school, it's unlikely he'll choose that option if he can hop in the car instead. With more than one-third of teenagers classified as overweight or obese, eliminating an opportunity for exercise is a negative.
The brain isn't fully developed at 18; that doesn't happen until a person's mid-20s, typically. However, emotional maturity increases with age and experience. While a 16-year-old may drive faster than is safe because her friends tease her for being slow, at 18, that same teen may have the maturity to consider consequences and resist peer pressure. And if a younger teen's friends can't drive, she's not at as much risk of making the poor judgment of getting into a car with a peer who's impaired.
Many teens are busy with extracurricular activities, jobs, volunteer work and socializing. When teens younger than 18 can't drive themselves to and from these activities, those responsibilities fall onto their parents, who may not have the freedom or willingness to shuttle their teens from place to place.
In rural areas or areas that lack adequate, safe public transportation, high schoolers who can't get rides from their parents aren't able to get around. If a teen can't get to the job he needs to earn money for college or to get to an SAT prep course, that can limit his options after high school.
While in high school, teenagers can receive driving lessons from experienced relatives and take driver's education classes, which are offered at some schools. If a teen can't start driving until he's close to leaving home or has already left, he may not have anyone nearby to teach him to drive safely. It's careful and extensive training, more than age, that prepares teenagers to be safe drivers, argues Kate Willette of Seattle's SWERVE Driving School.
And raising the driving age won't necessarily prevent teen driver crashes -- it could just delay some of them. An 18-year-old who is a new driver has just as little experience behind the wheel as a 16-year-old new driver. The IIHS offers an example using Connecticut, where drivers can be licensed at 16, and New Jersey, where the minimum licensing age is 17. The death rate is higher among 16-year-olds in Connecticut, but higher among 17-year-olds in New Jersey. No matter the driving age, inexperience always leads to some accidents.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Teenagers
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Beginning Drivers and Crash Risk
- ABC News: Experts Link Teen Brains' Immaturity, Juvenile Crime
- American Psychological Association: While Adolescents May Reason As Well As Adults, Their Emotional Maturity Lags, Says New Research
- The Seattle Times: Training -- Not Age -- the Key to Making Teens Great Drivers
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Put Off Driver Licensure to Save Lives
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: State Laws