Kids, Cars and Carnage

December 31, 1992

Last March, students at Edgewood High School in Harford County mourned the deaths of two members of the school's "It's Academic" team. The two boys, ages 17 and 15, died in a car crash. Less than a month earlier, Edgewood students had mourned two other classmates -- who also were killed in an automobile accident.

This sad tale has an eerie counterpart at Howard County's Glenelg High School. From last February through November, three students and a recent graduate of the school died in car accidents.

Saddened and angered by these and other deaths of teens on Maryland roadways, residents of Howard and Carroll counties have begun a petition campaign to raise the state's minimum driving age from 16 to 17. The campaign's organizer argues that another year on the minimum age would mean that much more maturity in young drivers.

Two national insurance groups also have urged raising the driving age, quoting statistics showing car wrecks as the top killer of American youths.

Studies indicate the carnage was even worse as recently as 11 years ago. But then the drinking age was raised to 21. SADD and MADD chapters began to multiply. The designated driver became as much a party fixture as the keg. Penalties for drunken driving were toughened. Consequently, the number of 15- to 19-year-olds who died in alcohol-related car accidents dropped from 6,280 in 1981 to 2,170 in 1988. (Alcohol, it should be noted, wasn't involved in the local cases mentioned above.)

To continue this trend by raising the driving age to 17 is a tempting idea -- but a flawed one.

The simple fact is that people in their late teens, not to mention experienced adult drivers, are capable of driving as dangerously as 16-year-olds. A Baltimore County police spokesman reports that recklessness is more common to drivers in their early 20s than those in their teens. Besides, many 16-year-olds must drive themselves to work or school. Does it make sense to tell a kid he can hold a job but isn't responsible enough to drive a car?

Maryland already issues a provisional license forbidding people under 18 from driving from midnight to 5 a.m., unless with an adult. They must also go a year without any traffic violations before they can apply for an unrestricted license.

Stricter enforcement of these and other existing regulations, especially the drinking-age law too often ignored by youths and bar owners, seems the more logical approach to this problem. While it won't end the carnage, it could help to reduce it.

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