Kids, Cars and Carnage ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

December 31, 1992

Five 17-year-olds were driving on Outing Avenue in Pasadena last month when a passenger in the back seat reached in and grabbed the steering wheel, apparently as a joke. The driver lost control and slammed the car into a tree, killing one girl and critically injuring another.

This tragic tale echoes others from around Maryland this year. Howard County's Glenelg High School was hit especially hard in 1992, when three students and a recent graduate died in car wrecks.

Angered by all the carnage, residents of Howard and Carroll counties have spearheaded a petition campaign to raise the state's minimum driving age from 16 to 17. The campaign's organizer contends that adding a year to the minimum age will add that much more maturity to young drivers. Two national insurance groups agree that the minimum age should be raised, citing statistics showing car accidents as the top killer of American youths.

As recently as 1981, the carnage was worse. But then the drinking age was raised to 21. SADD and MADD chapters began to multiply. The designated driver came into vogue. 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 progress 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 jobs 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 some bar owners, seems the more logical response. While it won't end the carnage, it could help to reduce it.

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