On a chilly November night two years ago, a Ford Explorer was charging down a California highway. The 16-year-old driver and three of his friends were returning from a concert in Los Angeles. These young people were good students, gifted athletes, talented artists and musicians. And none were drunk or impaired by drugs.
They were, however, driving too fast, and the driver lost control of the car. The car went into a ditch and hit a tree. The driver and one passenger were killed. The other two passengers escaped with severe injuries. One of these passengers was my nephew. Today he is finishing high school in a wheelchair, a wheelchair he will occupy for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately, tragic auto accidents involving teenage drivers are much too common in all parts of the United States. After researching the subject for my speech, I have come to the same conclusion as the experts—that the best way to prevent such accidents is to raise the age for full driving privileges to 18 or older.
I know from my audience-analysis questionnaire that most of you oppose such a plan. But I also know from my questionnaires that most of you recognize that 16- and 17-year-old drivers are less skilled and less responsible than older drivers. So I ask you to listen with an open mind while we discuss some of the problems associated with teenage driving, the major causes of the problems, and a plan that will go a long way toward solving the problems.
No matter how one looks at the evidence, it all leads to one fact: There are too many motor vehicle accidents, deaths, and injuries involving teenage drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while teenagers make up 7 percent of the nation’s licensed drivers, they represent 14 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities. The NHTSA reports that last year 3,657 drivers age 16-to-20 were killed in automobile accidents. In addition to killing the drivers, these same accidents took the lives of 2,384 teenage passengers. But these accidents didn’t affect teenagers alone. They also took the lives of 2,625 people aged 21 or older. So the total number of people killed last year in automobile accidents involving teenage drivers was 8,666—almost exactly the number of full-time students at this campus.
Evidence also shows that the younger the driver, the greater the risk. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 16-year-olds have “the highest percentage of crashes involving speeding, the highest percentage of single-vehicle crashes, and the highest percentage of crashes involving driver error.” Moreover, as USA Today reports, 16-year-olds are three times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than are older drivers.
Now that we’ve seen the extent of the problem, we can explore its causes. One of the causes is inexperience. New drivers just haven’t had enough time on the road to develop their driving skills. But inexperience is far from the only cause of the problem. After all, there will always be inexperienced drivers--even if the driving age is raised to 21 or even to 25.
A second cause is revealed by brain research. Findings from the National Institute of Mental Health show that the brain of an average 16-year-old has not developed to the point where he or she is able to effectively judge the risk of a given situation. Dr. Jay Giedd, who led the research team that conducted the study, states: “When a smart, talented, and very mature teen does something that a parent might call ‘stupid,’ it’s this underdeveloped part of the brain that has most likely failed.” Steven Lowenstein, a medical professor at the University of Colorado, has just finished a five-year study comparing the traffic records of 16-year-old drivers to drivers aged 25 to 49. His conclusion? “Deliberate risk-taking and dangerous and aggressive driving behaviors predominated” among the 16-year-olds.
A third cause of motor vehicle fatalities among teenage drivers is night driving. According to the Washington Post, when 16-year-olds get behind the wheel of a car after dark, the likelihood of having an accident increases several times over. Of course, nighttime driving is less safe for everyone, but it becomes particularly dangerous when combined with a young driver’s inexperience and reduced ability to gauge risk.
Finally, there is the presence of teenage passengers in the car. We all know what it’s like to drive with our friends—the stereo is up loud, cell phones are ringing, everybody’s laughing and having a good time. The problem is that all these factors create distractions, distractions that too often result in accidents, injury, and death. Allan Williams, chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, reports that one teenage passenger doubles the risk of a fatal crash. With two or more passengers, the risk is five times greater. Remember my nephew’s accident I mentioned at the start of my speech? There were three passengers in the car.
So the extent of the problem is clear. So, too, are its causes. What steps can we take to help bring about a solution?
First, we need a national policy that no one can receive a learner’s permit until age 16, and no one can receive full driving privileges until age 18. This will allow 16-year-olds time to gain driving experience before having an unrestricted license and to reach a stage of brain development where they are better able to handle the risk and responsibility of driving.
Second, we need to restrict nighttime driving so as to keep younger drivers off the road when conditions are riskiest. Some states have tried to address this problem by banning teenagers from driving after midnight or 1 a.m., but as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports, these laws don’t go far enough. According to the Institute, we need a 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. limit until drivers reach the age of 18.
Third, we need to restrict the number of teenage passengers in cars driven by younger drivers. In fact, says Kevin Quinlan from the National Transportation Safety Board, “passenger restriction is the first and foremost measure you can take” to reduce teenage driving fatalities. According to Quinlan, the optimal policy would be to bar drivers age 17 or younger from having any passengers in the car unless the riders are adults or family members. Drivers from the age of 17 to 18 should not be allowed to carry more than one teenage passenger.
Now I know all of this might sound harsh and perhaps inconvenient, but the evidence is clear that it would save a significant number of lives. “If you want to discuss harsh,” said one father whose 17-year-old son died in an accident three years ago, “I can talk to you about harsh. It’s being awakened at 2:30 in the morning by the State Patrol telling you that your son has just been killed.”
Everyone in this room has lived to college age. But this year alone, thousands of teenage drivers will not live that long. And they won’t live that long due to factors that we can prevent. There’s no way to solve all the problems we encounter on the road, but we can do something to help save the lives of younger drivers and make the road safer for all of us. As I said earlier, this might sound harsh or inconvenient, but I know my nephew would gladly trade both for the chance to walk again.