We Americans resist encroachments on our freedom to drive automobiles as we please just as we resent restrictions on our freedom to worship or to vote. As a nation we dislike regimentation of any sort. Time and time again we have demonstrated that we will not readily relinquish what we regard as our individual rights unless we are convinced that our doing so is necessary for the national welfare. At present the American people do not stand wholeheartedly and unitedly behind efforts to make our highways safer.
Perhaps the most significant problem is risky or unsafe or inappropriate driving among American youth. Cruising around in a car is still a favorite teen leisure occupation. Present-day youth has developed some habits which from a safety standpoint are highly undesirable. The problem of young driver safety is well documented in terms of the size and nature of the problem. It is well established, for example, that young drivers play a disproportionately large role in traffic crashes.
Raising the minimum driving age to, for instance, 19 or 20 would likely generate significant safety gains. This paper considers a statement that driving age should be raised in the USA. In many ways, the adolescents of the early 21st century are the healthiest generation in Western history. Unlike the adolescents of 1900, very few of the adolescents of 2006 will die of infectious diseases before they reach maturity. Unlike the adolescents of 1900, very few of the adolescents of 2006 are subject to extremely unsafe and unhealthy working conditions in mines and factories.
Nevertheless, the adolescents of the 21st century face health problems and challenges of their own. For USA adolescents today, the primary threats to their health arise from their behavior. In the USA, one of the leading causes of death among young people in their teens and early 20s are automobile accidents. Rates of automobile fatalities are especially high in the United States, because the legal driving age is 16 in most American states (vs. 18 in most European countries) and because young Americans are more likely than young Europeans to have ready access to an automobile.
Changes in traditional forms of social organization and in the structure of communities and their habits and customs have altered the character of family life of a considerable and increasing section, and there has been a general lessening of respect for authority in its various forms. Within a normal range such tendencies might be harmless; it was only when the controlling influence of the family or local institutions was removed that the young person became a menace to himself or society.
Within such a framework of interpretation, the motor car, with its enormous potential for the expression of these primal ‘tendencies’, and for enabling the young person to break the restraints of family and neighborhood, appeared as a mighty disruptive force. Young people had always been prone to risky behavior but now they have access to more powerful means of destruction. Young drivers have better eyes and faster reflexes than their elders. The trouble is not their physical fitness or alertness but their psychological volatility. Youngsters are subjected to mental stresses far beyond those found in normal adults.
Alternatively, an eighteen-years-old can become so absorbed in the prospect of meeting his evening’s ‘date’, that he loses concentration altogether and drives as if in a ‘dream’. From the mid-1950s the number of deaths and injuries among teenage drivers and passengers began to rise alarmingly. A 2000 federal parliamentary inquiry into road safety found that young people between the ages of seventeen and twenty comprised 5. 5 per cent of the national population but were involved in 15 per cent of road casualties and 12 per cent of fatalities.
Being youthful and exuberant, full of confidence and in many instances irritated by restraints imposed upon them, teenage motorists are more accident-prone than their elders. Within this age group, alcohol consumption is frequently associated with driving or riding with a driver who has been drinking. Although drinking-driving is of substantial concern, the broader set of risky-driving behaviors of youth also must be understood. Crash-involved (versus noncrash-involved) youth is more likely to smoke cigarettes, misuse alcohol, use illicit drugs and not use seat belts.
High crash rates among young drivers correlate with various personality characteristics, including impulsivity, adventurousness, trusting attitude and poor self-control. These findings support the need to raise driving age. However, older drivers who are disposed to prohibit young drivers should remember their own youthful enthusiasm. You want to drive when you are young. It’s the thing you really want to do, and in most instances, do well. When you sit at the wheel with your girlfriend beside you, a long road ahead and a swim and a picnic to go to, you feel free and you feel good.
There’s nothing quite like it, and you will never believe that someday you won’t find driving so thrilling. Teenagers use the car not so much as a utilitarian appliance but as status, as compensation for the feeling of powerlessness, and as a device to make dating possible. The car is of great instrumental importance for dating and related activities. For the teenage boy, having a car is not only prestigious but usually imperative when asking a girl for a date. It allows for mobility and privacy, providing American teenagers with the most frequent setting for sexual experimentation.
Finally, driving an automobile can provide a sense of power. Since the adolescent experience includes a feeling of restriction and powerlessness, some teenagers use the car as a symbol and an instrument of freedom and escape from adult control. From their first appearance during the Edwardian era, cars won attention for how they looked as much as what they did. By the 1960s, car owners as well as manufacturers and car salesmen recognized that the automobile was a ‘status symbol’, an essential prop in the search for social recognition that American sociologists saw as the ruling principle of postwar suburbia.
However, this story ends with a lament for the wastage of young lives because of the failure of the older generation, politicians especially, to curb the recklessness, and perhaps limit the horsepower available to the young. We need to stop reckless young people from driving, either by raising the minimum driving age, introducing a stiffer driving test or imposing long periods of suspension on youthful offenders. The right to drive, I believe, must be balanced by the moral capacity of the driver to avoid harm to others. If the young driver is unable to drive safely he should simply forfeit that right.