Why States Should Ban Adolescent Driving

Car crashes kill more teens each year than any other cause; and of the crashes in which they are involved, teens are overwhelmingly at fault. Decades of law-reform efforts have led to mandatory seatbelt laws, an increased legal drinking age, and graduated-licensing systems. Yet traffic fatalities still account for nearly 40% of all deaths of 16- to 19-year-olds. Driving, then, is arguably the greatest public health threat facing U.S. teens. (The next three leading causes of teen death — homicides, suicides, and cancer-related illness — trail only distantly.) While existing measures have had some positive effects, they insufficiently safeguard both young drivers and the public at large from young drivers’ immaturity and inexperience. A report of a National Academies interdisciplinary workshop, for example, concluded that “the sheer magnitude of the injuries and fatalities that continue to result from teen crashes shows that current prevention efforts are inadequate.”

Most of us know that teens crash at rates far higher than those of older drivers. Fewer may be aware that the younger the teen driver, the higher the risk — by far the highest crash rates are those of 16-year-olds (250% higher than those of 18-year-olds), followed by those of 17-year-olds (50% higher than those of 18-year-olds). Driving inexperience and developmental immaturity are the primary factors that contribute to adolescent crash risk. Driving inexperience, however, is not the primary cause of the higher crash risk of younger teens. At younger ages (15 to 17), driving inexperience is secondary to developmental immaturity; not until later ages do different levels of driving experience account for more of the differences in crash rates. Thus the crash risk for 15-year-old beginners is much higher than that for 17-year-old beginners, but the crash risk for 18-year-old beginners is only slightly higher than that for 20-year-old beginners. At each month of driving experience, young drivers crash at rates higher than those of older drivers with equal driving experience.

By ages 15 or 16, adolescents indeed have the cognitive ability required to learn traffic rules and basic driving skills. But the self-regulatory capacities and psychosocial maturity essential to competent and safe driving remain immature in adolescence (the developmental stage between childhood and adulthood, generally spanning ages 12 to 17), as observed in research of adolescent behavior generally and driving behavior specifically, and supported by research of the adolescent brain. When decision-making contexts involve stressors that require the exercise of psychosocial maturity/regulatory competence — requiring, for example, that a decision be made in an unfamiliar situation (such as the new perceptual situations involved in driving); under time pressure (such as the nearly-instantaneous reactions often required when reacting to driving hazards); in in the presence/under the influence of peers (including the direct or perceived influence of peer passengers); or in an emotionally-charged situation — adolescent decision making suffers. These characteristics all confound the execution of whatever nascent driving competence adolescents do possess.

Guided (i.e. supervised) practice facilitates expertise development, and experts stress its importance to the process of skill acquisition. Beginners are unlikely to acquire expertise solely through unsupervised or unstructured experience. Practice guided by experienced drivers helps ensure that the beginning driver acquires desirable skills and avoids acquiring undesirable habits (just as competent and safe driving skill can become automated, so to can unsafe habits). And driving under adult supervision is safe; very few learner drivers crash while driving with adult supervising passengers. Most states have imposed some aspect of graduated licensing, which generally includes a mandatory learner-permit stage requiring beginner drivers to practice under adult supervision. University of North Carolina Research Scientist Robert Foss, who studies licensing and driver education systems and works to develop policies to improve traffic safety, wrote that at present, there is “little evidence that any kind of education or training other than ‘just driving’ effectively reduces crash rates.” And acquiring experience takes time. Extending the period during which beginning drivers hold learner permits, and even lower the age at which beginning drivers can acquire permits, may improve driving skill and in turn reduce the crash risk when drivers do acquire unsupervised licensure. The safety benefits of an extended period of supervised learner’s licensure, moreover, have found empirical support.

Graduated-licensing systems have resulted in crash reductions. In addition to learner-permit requirements, they often impose nighttime driving restrictions and passenger restrictions, which aim to provide beginners with experience in lower-risk situations. The major contributor to crash reduction attributable to these systems, however, is the delay in licensure that tends to accompany their adoption. Minimum permit-holding periods and minimum practice-hour requirements tend to delay the age at which teens become licensed. And states whose licensing systems have resulted in delays in licensure have generally seen the largest crash reductions among young drivers.

Adopting 16 as the presumptive age of licensure has made the United States the earliest-licensing nation in the developed world. U.S. teens continue to acquire licenses to drive unsupervised at younger ages and with less experience than do young people in other nations. Unsurprisingly, they also have a greater risk of being injured or killed in a car crash than do their counterparts in other developed nations. Recent proposals predict that a licensing system that both delays licensure to age 17 (so far, New Jersey is the only state that does so, with early studies characterizing its effects as “strongly positive”) and implements elements of graduated-licensing provisions would lead to “major reductions” in young drivers’ crashes.

Legislators and researchers both frequently express the view that increasing the age of licensure is not a politically feasible option. But skeptics may overestimate the level of public resistance. Surveys of parents consistently find significant support for raising the licensing age, and overwhelming majorities have supported increasing various restrictions on young drivers. Importantly, in states where restrictions have been put into place, parents report near-universal support of them.

The immature regulatory competence of adolescents impedes the execution of their still-emerging driving skills in real-world contexts. For all beginners, the acquisition of driving skill comes only with guided practice and experience over many months. But only increased maturity and the development that comes with it can lead to the reliable exhibition of regulatory competence. Thus, licensure reform should provide for an extended supervised learning period, which could safely begin in mid-adolescence (ages 15 to 16). Unsupervised licensure, however, should be delayed until young people have gained the expertise that comes with practice and experience, and the regulatory competence that comes with age and development. This requires raising — ideally to 18 — the age of licensure.

[I expand on these arguments in a work-in-progress, Liberty Without Capacity: Why States Should Ban Adolescent Driving, that draws from principles of social ecology to explain the many aspects of this public health issue, interrelates and analyzes research from the social and developmental sciences, and accounts for the basic ends of the liberal state, the interests of immature citizens, political challenges, and constitutional boundaries to derive and make a sustained argument for the most effectual legal reforms to which this analysis inexorably points.]


image: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/921217

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12 Responses

  1. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Nice post and wonderful scholarly paper, from which I learned a lot. Fine history, interesting psychology and totally sensible prescriptions derived therefrom.

    The history and some of the psych do suggest variation in place and time. So I wonder whether the earlier learning licensing (to 15 say) and later full licensing (to 17 say) might vary for different locales (e.g., farm and non-farm, crowded suburban areas such as New Jersey versus less dense spaces such as Omaha).

    As an uncle of suburban kids and parent of urban kids, I see the problems you describe in both settings. And I see variation between them that may warrant different training at different ages, in different places, given different social and other uses of the auto.

    That said, kudos on a fine paper!

    PS: Perhaps this is in your BYU piece, which you cite but I haven’t read. But the topic did remind me, a Contracts devotee, of the challenges that arise from similar “liberty without capacity” in the context of minors forming contracts. Minors are allowed to ratify or disclaim contracts, essentially at will. Such a law gives kids liberty while recognizing they lack capacity.

  2. Agreed, adolescent driving should be banned for all the reasons stated above, but if you’re going to go that far, then elderly driving should also be prohibited past a certain age. It is the elderly drivers who are high on their meds, can’t see, and have zero reaction time/inability to time breaking vs. accelerating who are perpetuating the mass mowings in the street.

    There are many examples but the one that most sticks out in my mind afer all these years is the one that occurred in 1999 in Santa Monica, CA at an outdoor farmer’s market wherein an elderly driver, apparently too out of it to know what he was doing (or that is what his legal defense claimed was the reason) ran down several pedestrians. The only reason why his vehicle stopped at all is because there was a body dragging beneath it. Since the driver was elderly, he escaped a prison sentence. This is just one example of many of such driving incidents.

  3. Shag from Brookline says:

    Here in MA, a fairly recent statute “empowers” a police officer to notify the Registry of Motor Vehicles that a motor vehicle operator may present a danger, obliging the Registrar to suspend the person’s license and turn in his/her vehicle registration plates. There is a hearing process available AFTER such suspension. There do not seem to be any standards for the officer’s determination. This can be a problem for elderly drivers involved in “fender benders” in which no one is injured, just a little property damage. This can be greatly inconvenient for an elderly person who relies upon his/her vehicle to shop, keep medical appointments, etc, as well as significant expense. Some officers may go overboard with this power, especially if the elderly driver is considered “testy” by the officer when personal questions are asked about other than how the accident happened. There have been reports of elderly abuse in the use of this statute.

    On the other side of the coin, if the officer fails to take such action and later the elderly operator crashes into a crowd of people killing and maiming, then perhaps (with the benefit of hindsight) that event might not have happened if the officer had notified the Registry of the driver’s danger.

    Reliance upon a car can be problematic for both adolescents and the elderly.

  4. prometheefeu says:

    The psychology is interesting. However, I am not sure how you reach your conclusion that adolescents should not be permitted to drive. Why is the specific risk level presented by 18 year olds acceptable while the specific risk level presented by 16 year olds is not. I don’t see any explanation as to why for instance you don’t propose 17 given that as you pointed out there is a significant increase in safety from 16 to 17.

  5. SgtDad says:

    You are not necessarily wrong, but leave out important data. When I stared driving at age 16 in 1966, traffic fatalities ran something like 6 per million miles driven (“mmd”). This was vastly better than, say, 1937 when it was 14/mmd. Nowadays it is closer to 1.5/mmd. The fact is, driving is today vastly safer than ever.

    Of course, there are many reasons: much better trauma care delivered in a timely way is surely a big part. Better car construction, seat belts, better traffic control, better road design, etc.

    What this means is that you are chasing an ever smaller problem and the changes you suggest will have an ever smaller effect.

    That said, adolescent judgment i=has been a problem since man became sentient. 18 is not too old to drive.

  6. Instead of – and/or in addition to – raising the age at which adolescents may be licensed to drive, states may wish to experiment with requiring cars regularly driven by teens to have the existing speed-limit control readjusted to a lower speed, or at least permitting concerned parents to make such a change – a move which would both tend to prevent many accidents, as well as to substantially reduce the severity of those which occur.

    Virtually every car on the road today has, built into its on-board electronic system, a high-speed cutoff circuit which prevents the vehicle from being driven at a speed greater than that programmed into its computer memory. Unfortunately, the top speeds programmed into these systems usually exceed 120 mph, and are based upon the speed at which the tires will begin to disintegrate from centrifugal force.

    But the top-speed value can easily be reset to something far more realistic, almost as simply as computer users change the “defaults” in various fields on their computer programs. So, instead of prohibiting 16-year-olds from driving at all, limiting the speed at which they are permitted to drive may be a more feasible solution.

    For a young very inexperienced teen driver, especially in an urban setting, requiring a car dealer to reset the top speed to 60 mph would virtually eliminate any possibility that the teen would exceed that limit, while still permitting the teen to drive on Interstate and other major roads where the speed limit is frequently 55 mph. For somewhat older teens, and/or those with considerable experience and a clean driving record, the speed limit might be set to 65, 70, or even higher.

    Even a 70 mph speed limit, which is much higher than any teen would realistically need given current speed limits, would prevent the all-too-common accident where a teen – sometimes while racing, sometimes while drunk, and sometimes at the urging of peers – drives at 80 mph or above and puts not only himself and his passengers, but also everyone in other vehicles, at a high risk of a very serious and often fatal accident.

    But a driver whose speed is no more than 70 mph is obviously far less likely to have an accident than the same driver under the same road conditions going 90, 100, or even 120 mph. The differential between his speed and that of other vehicles on the road, the distance needed to stop the car, etc. are all much less. In short, driving at a lower speed provides more time and distance for a driver to see, steer, brake, or otherwise avoid an accident.

    Moreover, even if an accident does occur, it will almost always be less severe. In general, an accident at 90 mph is about 225% as severe as one occurring at 60 mph, even thought the 90 mph vehicle is traveling only 50% faster. This is because the severity of the accident is directly related to the kinetic energy of the vehicle, which in turn is proportional not to the speed but to the square of the speed.

    It should be noted that this proposal would not require the development of any new technology or any added expense of including a new device within the vehicle, since virtually modern vehicles already have such computer controls already built in. Moreover, the expense of reprogramming the top speed is very low for any car dealership which already has devices for reprogramming many other characteristics of the vehicle’s performance.

  7. prometheefeu says:

    Why should we treat teens as presumptive law breakers instead of affording them the same presumption of innocence as we afford adults? It seems quite unfair to specially burden teens without respect to their individual actions.

  8. Jack says:

    Do you make some estimate of whether the benefit achieved will outweigh the cost of denying young people the right to drive? Obviously, much social good results from young people driving; productive work, school, social and extra-curricular activities, etc.

  9. Stuhlmann says:

    I live in Germany, and here you must be 18 to get a full drivers license. At 17 you can drive if one of your parents is with you. Granted there is a robust network of buses and passenger trains here, so the inability to drive does not hit 16 year olds as hard as it would in much of the US.

    As an aside, 16 year olds here can legally drink beer and wine.

  10. Litigator says:

    Do you consider the emergence of self-driving cars? This seems to me to undercut your argument (and, perhaps, render your scholarship somewhat obsolete).

  11. ParatrooperJJ says:

    We let 17 year olds enlist in the military, now we want to not let them drive?? We let 16 year olds be charged as adults but then not give them the rights of adulthood?

  12. AndyGump says:

    Lets just change the age to 20. There, no more teenage deaths due to driving. Stupid article.