Driving home the need for laws limiting teen licenses

March 28, 2000|By Susan Reimer

I AM A carpooling mother of two, I tell people, and I work for a newspaper between trips.

I leave for the office only after I've dropped off a child at school. And I have to be out of there in time to do my share of the sports car pool.

I cobble together dinner, such as it is, with my car keys in my hand. And I generally go straight from behind the wheel to bed after making the last trip of the day. My world view has shrunk to the size of a windshield.

Would I like to hand off some of this driving to my 16-year-old? You bet.

If he could drive himself and his friends home after practice and games, my life would be transformed.

If he could ferry his sister and her friends on weekends, my husband and I might be able to go out together and have a conversation that is not about who is picking up whom.

But my instincts tell me that a kid who can't remember to put the cap back on the milk jug might not be able to manage the complexities of operating a motor vehicle when it is filled to capacity with his buddies or his sister's annoying little friends.

And my instincts are correct.

A study reported last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the more young people you pack into a car with a teen-ager behind the wheel, the more likely the driver will die in a crash.

The report, based on data collected by the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, showed that a 17-year-old male carrying three or more passengers was 207 percent more likely to die than if he were driving alone.

I say "he" because the death rate is higher for male drivers and it is higher for male drivers carrying male passengers. One study observed that cars full of boys are more likely to be traveling faster and tailgating.

One stereotype did not hold up under scrutiny. Alcohol is a relatively uncommon cause in these deaths.

In the words of a JAMA editorial written by Robert Foss of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center: "It is apparently that the contribution of alcohol to crashes pales in comparison to inexperience, impulsiveness, and poor judgment by drivers, and distractions by passengers."

In short, 16- and 17-year-olds are not very good drivers because they have not been at it long enough, and they should never be permitted to turn the family car into a rolling party barge.

But states trying to pass laws restricting for six months the number of passengers new drivers may ferry keep running into oppo- sition from the same constituency: parents. Apparently we can't wait another six months to hand over the carpooling chore to our kids.

Parents dress up their objections by saying that such restrictions defeat the designated driver imperative we preach. And what about our daughters? Shouldn't their virtue be protected by allowing only "group" dating?

But the bottom line is this: After 16 years of taxi service we are tired of chauffeuring our kids, and tacking on another six months seems unendurable.

"There is no magic to the six-month rule," says Anne Ferro, head of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration. "It is just that their coordination and depth perception are still pretty fragile. They need to gain some degree of confidence without us there harping at them or telling them what to do.

"And while they may not always act the part, every day a teen gets beyond `16 and one month' is a day closer to maturity," she says.

The day after the Hopkins report appeared on The Sun's front page, the Maryland Senate killed three bills that would have placed restrictions on the number of passengers for new drivers. Either our legislators don't read the paper, or they don't have teen drivers in the house.

But a bill has survived in the state House that would limit the number of passengers to the number of seat belts in the car. While that would not remove the human distractions from around a teen driver, it would at least limit their number by preventing the "piling in" phenomenon.

Ferro urges parents to enforce restriction on the number and the age of any passengers as if it were the law. "Just treat it like another six months of a learner's permit," she says.

And that would be simple to do, if it were not easier to give in to your teen's last-minute phone call from school: "Mom, practice is canceled. I'm just gonna ride home with Jack."

Or if we did not flinch when we had to say to our friends and neighbors, "I'm sorry, but my child will not be allowed to ride with your child for at least another six months."

Or if we could resist our children's pleas not to be singled out by our neuroses, not to be excluded from group outings because of our fears.

Can you imagine how mortifying it is for a teen to arrive at the movies in the back seat of Mommy's van when all his friends traveled there in the car of a newly licensed friend? He might have to enter the witness protection program.

Our teens could save face if parents acted in concert on this. But face it, only a legal statute might make that happen. "Because it is against the law" is just the kind of conversation stopper weary parents adore.

Do I wish my carpooling days were over? You bet. I have elaborate daydreams about what my life will be like then.

But I hope I have the stamina, and the backbone, to push that day six months further away.

I don't like the way my 16-year-old acts when he is around his friends. I can't imagine I will like the way he drives.

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