The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety probably is right in saying the roads would be safer if the age for getting a driver's license were raised to 17 or 18. But, for a variety of reasons, we doubt that will happen anytime soon, if ever.
The roads almost certainly would be safer without 15- and 16-year-olds behind the wheel. Just do the math; this age group is among the most accident-prone of any, and making them wait until they are 18 would ensure that fewer teen drivers are on the road at any given time.
The institute, a research group funded by the auto insurance industry, points to New Jersey, the only state with a 17-year-old driving age, as a model. Crash-related deaths are lower there than in some nearby states. The institute reasons that holding off a year or two in allowing teens to drive would significantly reduce car crashes.
But the same argument could be made for just about any teen privilege. If we could keep them all locked up until they turn 18, everyone would be safer.
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But the newly released teens would have little practical experience in the world. They still would all be potentially dangerous drivers until they got some practice.
Granted, the 16-year-old standard is arbitrary. Nonetheless, all but a few states use that standard.
Many, however, including South Carolina, have adopted graduated driving privileges, which is a sensible way to reduce the risk. In South Carolina, for example, teens can get a beginner's permit with a written test at age 15. They are required to have an adult over age 21 with them at all times when they drive.
After 180 days, they can get a restricted or conditional license that allows them to drive alone during daylight hours. After dark, an adult must accompany them.
They cannot get an unrestricted driver's license until they have held a restricted or conditional license for a year.
This process is a big improvement over the days when teens could take their driver's test on their 16th birthdays with no pre-conditions. The new policy at least requires that they have an adult present while they are developing their driving skills.
By the time they are 16, we think, teens need to be taking on some responsibilities themselves, including personal transportation. If they have to wait until they are 17 or 18, they remain dependent on parents practically until they ready to go off to college, join the military or take a civilian job.
Also, ask parents and many will admit that giving their 16-year-olds the keys is a big convenience. After years of carting kids to school and back and taking them wherever they need to go, it's a relief to let them drive themselves.
We have created a nation where driving is essential. Public transportation is not an option except in large metropolitan areas.
Kids need to assume responsibilities at some point. Letting them drive at 16 con- tinues to make sense despite the obvious hazards.