October 14, 2005
Teen drivers and energy useBy Ed Lasky
Everyone, not just the greenies, wants to cut our energy use. While some search for a technology fix, and others rail against the appurtenances of middle class suburban life, there is a much simpler step which would bring relief and also offer numerous side benefits. It may not happen, but at least consider it for a few moments: America could and should raise the legal driving age to twenty—one.
Drivers between the ages of 16 and 21 can be estimated to consume roughly 7% of the nation's gasoline. A drop in demand of even half this magnitude would, given the tight supply which has exacerbated the oil price shock, cause the price of gasoline to fall across America. Prices are set at the margin, and three percent is a significant decrease at the margin.
Of course, many families have incorporated teenage (for the sake of argument, including 20 year olds as "teenagers") driving into their lifestyles, relying on their teenagers to get themselves to school, activities, and jobs. Many students have jobs these days, but all too often the wages are used to pay for the car, gasoline, and insurance.
A virtuous cycle could be set in motion that not only would bring economic benefits to our nation but have significant cultural and civic benefits, as well, including helping prevent the breakdown of family life, reducing drug abuse, limiting sexual promiscuity among the young, boosting educational achievement levels of our students, reducing traffic congestion, improving the environment, and saving lives and billions of dollars of property damage. A cornucopia of benefits would flow from a rise in the legal driving age.
Traffic fatalities and property damage
Nationally, more than 6,000 teenagers die in traffic accidents each year, with countless others maimed. While teenagers are 7% of the licensed drivers in America, they account for 14% of all deaths on the road. The economic costs are enormous. In Maryland, for example, the annual property damage just for highway accidents is $4 billion a year ($800 per every man, woman and child in the state). A substantial percentage of these accidents can be traced to teenagers. Their immaturity, inexperience, inattention (think cell phones and kids piled into the car), and false sense of invincibility have always been considered risk factors by the insurance industry, which prices their coverage of teenage drivers accordingly. This is one big reason why so many teenagers have to work in order to support their cars.
Scientists now believe that the brains of teenagers have not yet matured enough to safely deal with the demands of driving. Many teenagers also drive used cars and are less than diligent in maintaining them, thus making them inherently more dangerous to drive. When you add the increasing prevalence of drinking and drug use among the young, teenagers are clearly among the most dangerous drivers on the road and place them, and the rest of us, at risk.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Teen years are marked by inchoate feelings — a hormonal tsunami that goes on for years. The pain and confusion that beset these years often lead teens to turn to drugs or alcohol for solace. Once hooked on these substances, family life suffers and school grades plummet. The rise in abuse of these substances is clearly related to the freedom that comes with the right to drive for the majority of teens who live in suburbia. Parties can be attended, liquor stores visited, drug dealers reached. Speaking from experience, I live three doors down from a suburban forest preserve made famous by the hazing 'party' perpetrated by teenagers from a nearby high school. We were unaware of what was transpiring until the next day news reports, but we did take note of the numerous cars that made our street look like a parking lot. Absent these cars, there probably would have been less drinking and there would have been no hazing.
Breakdown in Family life
One of the classics in the literature of American sociology is Robert Lynd's Middletown: A study in American Culture. In 1929, Lynd studied a typical American town (Muncie, Indiana), and noticed the vast changes that accompanied the introduction of cars to the city. Teenagers were suddenly 'liberated' from the home and the neighborhood. A sense of freedom was quickly transformed into a sense of license: alcohol use soared and teenage sexual promiscuity became a new problem for America. We are still living with these effects, made far harsher by the cultural changes inherited from the 'Me Decade(s)'.
America has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world. Eighty—four children are born for every 1000 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 last year. Amongst this same group, more than half have engaged in oral sex and this proportion rises to about 70% among 18 and 19 year olds.
Is it a coincidence that these figures have risen as car driving among the young has become so widespread? Cars can be used for places of assignation but also as the means to 'hook up' with willing (albeit confused and immature) partners. Would this time be better spent with their families, growing closer to parents and siblings in the years before one leaves the roost? Would the guidance offered by parents and the security of the home provide an antidote to the stress of teenage years? Perhaps.
Furthermore, without the use of cars, teenagers would be more bound to their neighborhoods. They would be more likely associate with a wider range of kids than just their friends from school, even in relatively homogeneous suburban neighborhoods. They would have to learn to get along with people they haven't chosen. Lynd noticed that social stratification was already rising in the late 1920s because of the increasing use of cars. Teenagers were able to self—segregate: choosing to socialize only with people like themselves. This dynamic has exacerbated pecking orders in high school and a rise in tensions. If kids were more closely 'tethered' to home, at least some would learn to value the wisdom of their parents, grow closer to their siblings, and help preserve neighborhood life in America.
A crack in the stability of family life began when cars became part of the family. The crack has expanded and branched out in such a way to weaken the family—based culture of America that has been a base for our moral and economic strength.
Educators and politicians across the political spectrum have bemoaned the lack of educational achievement among our young. Teen years are crucial in preparing and enabling people to prepare for college or the work world. Many other nations around the world are held up as exemplars of teenage scholastic achievement. Yet very few, if any, have noted that teenage driving in America is ubiquitous compared to those nations. Many Asian or European nations have higher age requirements for their drivers or otherwise have fewer teenage drivers than America. Fewer hours frittered away on the road means more hours studying. To the extent that teenagers use their free time to work so as to afford to buy or maintain their cars, this is time that might be better spent studying at home.
Environmentalists around the world condemn the car culture of America, justly or not. A common—sense formula: having fewer cars on the road leads to the release of fewer pollutants. There would even be diplomatic rewards from changes in the driving laws. Those around the world who condemn America for refusing the purported (and delusional) "benefits" of the Kyoto Protocol would be surprised by our willingness to take this measure to help the environment. Americans are considered spoiled and indulgent by many people around the world, and American teenagers are held in particularly low regard. This might be a small step in changing those misperceptions
America has only 3% of the world's oil reserves but consumes 25 % of the world's oil output. This has made us vulnerable to the whims of unstable and anti—American regimes. Our oil gluttony has helped stock the coffers of tyrants who oppress their own people, and spread anti—Americanism and violence throughout the world. If we want to make the world safer for our children, we should start now by taking the keys away from them.
Naturally, there would be howls of outrage at any attempt to restrict or end teenage driving. But many other groups would rally around a call to increase the driving age requirements, because their interests and values would converge on this single issue. Environmentalists, religious and family—support groups, national security pundits, economists and businesses might all endorse the idea, once they examine its implications.
Of course, the automobile, fast food, and movie theatre companies would oppose the plan, though given the obesity crisis and morality problems afflicting the young, their views might better be ignored. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and D.A.R.E. groups, policemen associations, hospitals suffering from expensive ER rooms — the list of potential supporters for this approach goes on and on.
Many teenagers and their parents would resist restricting their ability to drive. That is a given. An abrupt cancellation of driving privileges for existing drivers is virtually out of the question. But phasing in a year—by—year, or every other year, rise in the minimum age for a driver's license is much more feasible. That would protect existing drivers while giving families and communities time to plan for the transition to new transportation options.
On this single issue a coalition of groups normally antagonistic to each other could form. The sign of a worthy goal is when groups with a diverse range of opinions and whose members come from widely different backgrounds agree to work together to accomplish the goal. Drivers' licenses are, and should remain a state issue. But the federal government has the power of the purse to persuade states to lift the legal driving age: federal funds for roads can be made conditional on this change in states' laws.
Whether you believe with Senator Santorum that 'It Takes a Family to Raise a Child" or Hillary Clinton that "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child', keeping teenagers closer to home would help improve our families. Unless, of course, they are permitted to isolate themselves in front of a television, video game, or computer screen. But that is up to the parents.
There are no silver bullets that will solve our energy problems. We need to act on many fronts, from increased exploration and drilling on federal lands and offshore, to improving vehicle mileage, to altering our lifestyles. One of the healthier and most beneficial changes might be to get our teenagers out from behind the wheel.
Ed Lasky is news editor of The American Thinker.