A blog called Juggle, part of the Wall Street Journal, recently posed the question, “When Should Your Teen Start Driving?” The article raised issues that have been debated for years by legislators and traffic safety professionals across the country: Should the minimum age for licensing teen drivers be 15, 16, 17, or even 18?
I respectfully submit that this question can mislead parents.
When state governments adopt teen driving laws, they establish simple, clear minimums. Lawyers often call these “bright line standards,” meaning that whether the rule is good or bad public policy, at least it is clear: if the minimum age is 16, and your teen is 15 years, 364 days old, she cannot get a learner’s permit or a license, but if she is 16 years, 1 day old she can. Put another way, teen driver laws tell parents and teens when their teens become eligible to apply for a permit or a license. The birth certificate does the rest.
Thus, when states set a minimum age, they establish a single rule for every teen and every family. Across most of the United States, state laws allow teens to obtain learner’s permits when they turn 16 and a so-called restricted, provisional, or junior license a few months later. Whether the minimum age should be higher has been debated nationally, as the Wall Street Journal article discusses. Here in Connecticut, when our statewide Task Force met in 2008 to revise our laws, some argued that if the minimum age were raised to 17 or 18, it would actually be harder for many parents to train their teens to drive, because so many leave the house around age 18, to attend college or begin a job. On the other hand, New Jersey has just published a study showing that raising its minimum age for a license to 17 has reduced crash and fatality rates measurably among 16, 17, and even 18 year olds.
But asking what the statewide minimum should be is a deceiving question for parents; your proper focus should be at what age your teen should be allowed to drive, regardless of what state law says. Some commentators call this the “age of responsibility,” to distinguish it from the “age of eligibility.”
The critical caution for parents is that each state’s minimum driving age, the one simple rule for the state’s entire population, is influenced by politics – legislators vying for support and votes of parents; tradition (the minimum age has been about 16 for a generation); culture (America romanticizes its automobiles); and simplicity / governments need rules that are easy to administer). But in no way, shape, or form are these driving ages based on public officials or law enforcement concluding that science or crash data show that all or most teens can safely drive at age 16, 17, or 18. In fact, these ages are directly contrary to what science, crash data, and numerous teen driver studies now tell us. If teen driver laws strictly followed science and data, the minimum driving age would be somewhere between 22 and 27!
So, parents, do not be misled: state law may say that your son or daughter is now old enough to drive, but in your judgment, is he or she ready to drive safely? The factors to assess here are appreciation of risk (is your child a daredevil?); emotional maturity (can your child handle the stress of driving?); physical maturity (is your child coordinated enough to handle a car, strong enough to change a tire?); and fear (will the dangers of driving overwhelm your teen’s driver training?). Every parent needs to make these judgments about every teen. In this calculation, the two factors that have no place whatsoever are the convenience to the parent / family of having another driver in the house, and peer pressure from your teen’s friends.
This blog is about informed decisions by parents. One critical element is to understand that just because your state’s teen driver laws allows your teen to obtain a license does not mean that the state has determined that that age is safe for most teens, and it is up to you to be the extra filter in the process, to decide whether your teen is ready to learn to be, and become, a responsible driver. Forget the “legal age” and focus on the “age of responsibility.” Your state may have a law, but you have a veto.