To paraphrase the late Art Linkletter: “Kids do the darndest things.” Government has taken that sentiment very seriously by establishing prescripted ages when our youth – all apparently in lockstep on the same maturity scale – are suddenly better equipped to tackle specific responsibilities.
But shouldn’t experience trump age requirements?
There are many 17-year-olds who are intellectually curious, informed, and perfectly capable of making an appropriate decision at the voting booth. Yet they are prevented from doing so until reaching the magic age of 18.
Then again, there are adults at least twice that age who don’t have a clue as to who or what they are voting for.
Countries establish minimum drinking ages under similar pretenses. One has to wonder if there would be fewer problems with binge drinking in today’s society if young adults were permitted to sample alcoholic beverages in public venues at an earlier age.
(This isn’t a plug for the new documentary by Ken Burns, “Prohibition,” but it does appear that we haven’t learned the lessons of that era. The Eighteenth Amendment, which ushered in a 14 year ban on the manufacture, sale or transportation of “intoxicating liquors” beginning in 1919, remains the only U.S. constitutional amendment to be subsequently repealed.)
A recent nationwide study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association further highlights that it is the experience of the individual, not some arbitrary statutory age limit, that matters.
Lead author Dr. Scott Masten, a researcher with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and his colleagues found that graduated driver’s license programs, adopted by many states over the past 20 years, are simply delaying teenage driving fatalities rather than preventing them.
Graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs typically target drivers under the age of 18. Those younger drivers have restricted privileges under GDLs, usually involving supervised driving, limits on night-time driving, and quotas on the number of young passengers being transported.
Conventional wisdom, promoted by organizations like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has been that GDLs have successfully reduced teenage driver fatalities.
The problem is that most data gathered to support that conclusion surveyed the records of 16-year-old drivers only. Masten reviewed fatal crashes over a 21-year period involving 16- to 19-year-olds behind the wheel and found that, “75 percent of the fatal crashes we thought we were saving just occurred two years later. It’s shocking.”
It isn’t shocking to followers of the NMA. We have steadfastly maintained that there is no substitute for meaningful experience behind the wheel, and that starting driver’s education at an earlier age will produce safer teenage drivers.
Masten has a couple of theories for the delayed fatality syndrome uncovered by his study.
The first is that many 16- and 17-year-olds are holding back from getting their licenses until they can avoid the GDL restrictions. The other hypothesis is that teenagers subjected to GDL restrictions are not gaining the necessary practical driving experience; in essence, their limited driving skills at age 18 are not much better than what those skills would have been at age 16 with a newly-minted driving permit.
Whichever theory you subscribe to, the premise is the same: Quality driving experience, not the mandate of a one-size-fits-all “age of maturity,” is the key factor for producing safer drivers.