November 14, 2009
How Old is Old Enough for Driver's License?
Disclaimer: When my kids turned 16, each received a car from their hugely naïve parents. Would that I had some things to do over again.
Two weeks ago, a San Diego journalist called asking for some quotes for a story he’s doing on teenage drivers. The story was prompted by the recent automobile deaths of two San Diego teens in separate accidents. My beloved grandson’s life flashed in front of me.
I told said journalist that giving a drivers license to a teenage child (and if anyone has failed to notice, they are still children) under age 18 was like giving the kid a revolver with ten thousand chambers, only one of which is loaded with a bullet, and telling him to point it at his head and pull the trigger. Would any responsible parent do such a thing? Then, pray tell, why do otherwise responsible parents allow teenage children to obtain drivers licenses and provide them with cars?
When would I allow driving privileges? he asked. When two conditions were satisfied—the 18th birthday and a high school diploma. Would that reduce the drop-out rate or what?
The 16-year-old driving privilege was established when cars were less powerful, roads were less crowded, and 16-year-olds were considerably more mature than they are today. Furthermore, these laws were passed to allow teens to participate more fully in the operation of family farms. They were not passed with the intention that teens would drive for discretionary, largely recreational purposes.
Do teens need driving privileges, much less cars? Obviously not. In Europe, where teens seem to live satisfactory lives (by all measures, they are much happier on average than US teens), the driving age is 18. Even then, few young adults drive cars. They walk, ride bicycles, use public transportation, or putt around on scooters.
Someone clamors for my attention: “But John! Lots of small towns and rural areas don’t have public transportation!” But the same is true in Europe. And, to repeat, European teens are lots happier than they are on this side of the pond.
I suggest that the primary reason the driving age is not going to be raised any time soon is because the current law is a huge convenience to parents. They are not only relieved of having to transport the young licensee, but they can also assign him to driving younger siblings to after-school activities and the like. So even though these young drivers cannot vote, state legislators are going to protect their driving privileges. Given that interstate commerce is involved, we can only hope that Congress will take up the issue.
Given the facts, which lead to the inescapable conclusion that giving driving privileges to a teen, any teen, puts the youngster at far, far more risk than letting a 5-year-old play outside unsupervised (which most of the same parents would not allow), I must conclude that this is not, to be polite, the most prudent of moves.
I invite anyone out there to justify this to me in rational terms. You can send your comments to me through my website at www.rosemond.com.
Family psychologist John Rosemond’s latest book, The Well-Behaved Child, is now in bookstores.
Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.