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Tilting at Windmills

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January 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE KIDS THESE DAYS....Ten years ago California adopted a new law that severely restricted teen driving and dramatically increased the requirements for teens to get a driver's license. The goal, of course, was to cut down on dangerous driving by teens and reduce the teen fatality rate on the road.

So did it work? Mike Males, a sociologist whose career has been largely devoted to defending kids against demonization by their elders (among other things, he's the author of The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents), compared the fatality rate among drivers licensed under the old law and those licensed under the new law, and concludes that the new law hasn't worked:

A study I conducted...found, as did previous researchers, that California's graduated licensing law was associated with fewer fatalities among 16-year-old drivers (down 20% through 2005). But that reduction was more than offset by the increased death rate — up 24% — of 18-year-olds, whose driving records researchers have neglected to study. The latest figures also indicate higher-than-expected fatalities among drivers aged 19, 20 and 21 who were licensed under the new law. The death rates of 17-year-olds changed little.

The stricter law appears to have split teens into three categories, none faring well. A few ignored the delays and supervision requirements specified in the new law and drove illegally, resulting in an 11% increase in deaths involving unlicensed teen drivers after the law took effect.

A second group, perhaps unable or unwilling to go through the months of supervision from parents or over-25 adults, waited until age 18 to learn to drive....Fewer 16-year-olds driving may be the biggest reason fatalities declined for that age.

Then there were teens who dutifully complied with the law's licensing requirements. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds driving legally under the new law experienced a 9% decline in fatalities compared with their pre-law counterparts — but when they turned 18, their death rate jumped to 25% higher than that of 18-year-olds licensed before the law.

Males suggests that driving experience is more important than licensing requirements. 16-year-olds are temporarily safer under the new law, mainly because fewer of them are on the road, but by the time they turn 18 they're more dangerous than they were under the old law because they have less driving experience than 18-year-olds in the past. (This lack of driving experience — and more oddly, a growing lack of interest in getting experience — is something I've noted before.) Perhaps on its ten-year anniversary, it's time California to rethink its shiny new teen driving law?

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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Many social experiments that end in restrictive laws end up not working. Look at drinking. poeple who learn how to drink sensibly have fewer accidents, and DUIs than people who are told it's illegal. Experience does count for many thing, and perhaps, Kevin, You can use this to drum (sorry about that pun) more support for Hillary? experience results in fewer deaths, you can say.

Posted by: Chris on January 27, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Off topic: No comments on Federer not winning the Australian Open?

Posted by: Mazurka on January 27, 2008 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

It's about time for him to lose another round! GO DJOKOVIC!

Posted by: Chris on January 27, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

I'm currently trying to teach a 15-year-old to drive. I would agree that driving experience is the key; all the licensing requirements in the world won't replace actual driving. I love the driver's tests that ask things like the maximum height of a tractor/trailer. Now there's something vital. However, to me the scary part is the shortage of judgment and sense of consequence in an adolescent, something that I think is just part of the way brains develop at that age.

Posted by: jrw on January 27, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Hello? Tiger Woods?

Our 13 year old has no urge to drive. I find it hard to imagine her or her friends driving in 2 or 3 years. We'll see.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on January 27, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

I bet Microsoft (XBox), Sony (Playstation), and Nintendo (Wii) could help solve this problem.

Posted by: Bush Lover on January 27, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

A great deal of drek is written nowadays about "liberals" vs. "conservatives," despite the lack of semantic content either word has.

In an effort to inject semantic content into this discussion, may I propose the following test to determine whether one is or is not a "conservative."

A "conservative" is someone who thinks the phrase, "Eat your spinach," is a good thing.

Unfortunately, I currently have no similar test to identify "liberals." Nor need any such test necessarily be more flattering.

Still, Kevin's point in this post shall fail because he misses the point. Making driving licenses for teens harder to get is a way of making them eat their spinach. So conservatives will continue to favor these stringent requirements anyway.

Posted by: Duncan Kinder on January 27, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

The only thing that make a really good driver is - gasp! - driving. Like anything else the more you do the better you get.

Having survived 3 teens learning to drive*, the last 2 under Michigan's graduated license law, I have decided that the best thing to do is to put them in the closest thing to a tank that you can find and afford. Personally I favor Lincolns from the late 80's or early 90's, but a good second best is any big, solid, American upscale sedan: Chrysler New Yorker, full sized Fords, etc. Cadillacs of all sorts are heavy and plentiful, but mechanically they were junk in the 80's and most of the 90's so exercise caution there.

Why American and why upscale? Well, bluntly, the kid will want all the toys that come on upscale cars, which no one in their right mind would buy new, and American cars are cheaper. And you want cheap. This car will last 3 years. Tops. Probably less, and definitely much less if your child insists on dragging and jack-rabbiting (and they all do it, even the girls) which is hard on the mechanicals, and, in the snow belt testing the limits of traction on ice and in snow, which dings up the body - sometimes considerably. Don't skimp on good tires, and the safety features even if the car looks like a scalded cat.

Gas mileage sucks on all these behemoths, and the price of gasoline hurts, but that and insurance are what teen jobs are for. Right?

With any luck you'll have a pretty good live and much more experienced teen-aged driver when this "training" car gives up the ghost. Pat yourself on the back, kiss the poor wreck on the hood, and go out and buy yourself a box of hair dye. By that time you'll need it.

*Oh. Yes, the teens survived, too. The last one turns 21 next week.

Posted by: clio on January 27, 2008 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

I think Kevin is absolutely right, which is why I call on licenses to be issues to 12 year olds.

Posted by: A 12 year old. on January 27, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

A "conservative" is someone who thinks the phrase, "Eat your spinach," is a good thing.

Conservative: "Eat your spinach because I said so, and you can't have dessert if you don't finish it."

Liberal: "Eat your spinach because it's good for you, and you can't have dessert if you don't finish it."

Some of our worst public policy disasters have arisen when conservatives and liberals agreed to make a change. Replacing inpatient mental health treatment with homelessness was a bipartisan effort.

Posted by: freelunch on January 27, 2008 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

In Maryland, the new laws require teens to complete more hours with a licensed driver while they have their learner's permits. (upped to 60 from 40). Once they have their driver's license, they are not allowed to have anyone under 18 in the car unless the child is a family member OR there is another licensed 21-or-older driver in the car. This restriction lasts 6 months, and keeps new drivers from running around with a pack of distracting friends in tow. Teens are not allowed to drive after midnight until they are 18.

Maryland, like California, has lots of traffic, highways, and urban/suburban driving issues.

As a parent, I think Maryland has imposed reasonable restrictions, especially the no driving after midnight. (No more arguments about curfew) My son just finished his 6 month restriction about no other kids in the car, and I feel it gave him crucial experience in traffic before adding the distraction of a friend in the jump seat.

I haven't seen the stats, since these restrictions on new drivers began two years ago. But my son has a much better driving record than his older sister.

Posted by: cyrki on January 27, 2008 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

My son is a Junior in High School... right in the middle of the infamous California 'restriction year'.

I'd say the analysis is spot on. Many of his clasmates seem to be disinterested in obtaining a driver's licence. Instead they will be starting green as 17 and 18 year olds.

When they get their license they will STILL be in the middle of their testosterone peaks. I think it is worse to start at that age as 18 they are more (over) confident and cocky than they are at 16.

>"I think Kevin is absolutely right, which is why I call on licenses to be issues to 12 year olds."

Hmmm... started at 12 myself... on logging roads and racing motorcycles. By the time I started driving I had quite a few miles under my belt.

At my first driver-ed class in high school I volunteered to be the first to drive... slid behind the wheel and we simply went for a drive.

The instructor looked at me and asked me how long I'd been driving without a license.

Posted by: Buford on January 27, 2008 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

Was there a variable in the study for average distance driven on a given trip? And was there a control for average freeway fatalities in CA?

16, you're still in high school (mostly) and you're driving around the local area (mostly) and spending most of your time on side streets (mostly). 18, you're an adult, you're out of high school, and you're on the freeway. And, if my mornings on the 101 are any indication freeway driving is tougher than light-to-light driving on Ventura Blvd. (And sometimes even faster.)

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on January 27, 2008 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

We need to follow the rest of the world again on this, eliminate drivers licenses for anyone under 18. Let them ride scooters and mopeds if they must. And then make the requirements for getting a license as an adult extremely expensive and incredibly difficult. And use the extra money raised by the fees to pay for the kinds of transit that we need to have in this country. We have far too many people on the road and we have created a culture of the automobile that makes learning to drive a major life milestone. We need to undo that way of thinking.

Posted by: Inaudible Nonsense on January 27, 2008 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

As a mother of three teens, I don't think the restrictions are a bad thing. In Texas, for the first 6 months a teen is allowed only one other teen in the car with him/her while driving. God knows they don't have the experience needed to avoid accident situations. That only comes with time behind the wheel. Less distractions while driving is beneficial. And perhaps it only comes after a few bone-headed accidents (ask me!) where they figure out maybe there is a little something to the art and it's not "How hard can it be, afterall, my parents do it?"
It does come down to parental involvement, like most things...

Posted by: wasab on January 27, 2008 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

Only teenagers (if there are any who read PA) and parents of teenagers will care about this post. Being one of the latter, I have to say that the noted lack of interest in getting a driver's license among today's teenagers is baffling. That was my top priority.

I've been told that they like the convenience of being driven everywhere and don't want to mess with parking, etc. Can today's youth really be that pragmatic? What happened to the freedom imperative, cruisin' for burgers (and other stuff), etc.? The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and a lot of others made homage to the car culture a musical niche. Can times have changed that much?

Posted by: DevilDog on January 27, 2008 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

Ah... memories. There are more restrictions on licenses in MN now than when I was learning. I still had the "full license" when I turned 16. But because I live in a small midwestern city (or very large midwestern town) you need to drive to go a lot of places and I had a lot of practice with my parents during my 8 months of getting my learner's permit.

Sure I had the "6 months accident" in my case I hit a yes, a parked car, but since then no accidents (or tickets) and tend to be a safer driver than a lot of other people I have ridden with.

Posted by: MNPundit on January 27, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

it strikes me that wasab is right. If your parents are good drivers, you will probably be a better driver and vice versa. And the way you become a good driver is experience, the more you escape problems, the better you will be. I learned more from hitting an oil slick and wrecking my mom's car that in all the hours of driver's ed. It helped to watch the three cars behind me do the same thing, I must say. .

Posted by: northzax on January 27, 2008 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

Mmmm, let's see-about 46 years ago I got my learners license in South Carolina at age 14. The restriction was no driving after dark until the age of 16 (as I recall). I agree that experience is the best teacher and let's get the kids that experience at an early age.

As an aside, my first car was a '56 Ford. I wish I had it back today!

Oh yeah, here in Alabama we have a boating license law with which I fully agree. I have seen far too many close calls with kids on personal watercraft which could have been disastrous.

Posted by: tommy harper on January 27, 2008 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

The only thing I have to add to this is: Mike Males is right. Teenagers are increasingly "demonized". While learning to drive takes time, and the only cure for lack of knowledge is experience, trying to get increasingly restrictive of them isn't going to work in the long run. But a lot of people(including a lot of parents), are just not going to appreciate this.
Anne G

Posted by: Anne Gilbert on January 27, 2008 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

Those dag-gonnit underage drivers. Just an hour ago I came within inches of running over a car with my bicycle. Yes you heard it right, it was a ten inch plastic radio controlled toy car. And I probably won't have felt it, but the car woulda been totaled!

Experience matters. But I've always maintained that attitude matters even more. The desire to be careful an responsible goes a long way. I don't know how to teach it if the kids parents/friends aren't that way themselves.

I wonder how much useful experience could be given in simulators. Clearly playstations won't do, at least not with the current software, this only encourages reckless racing. In these games if you don't have what in real life would be a fatal accident every minute, you aren't pushing it hard enough. But a safety related simulator, which greatly increases the odds of accidents when bad habits are followed. Say, you follow to close, then there is a seventy five percent chance of the car in front suddenly stopping. Or passing on a blind curve and,.. oops didn't see that semi coming. Most people drive by gut feeling, and since the odds of bad consequences happening during a single violation are pretty small, many people learn bad habits without ever realizing it.

Posted by: bigTom on January 27, 2008 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

The restrictions don't seem like a bad thing at all. Why do people have to drive? For most teens, there are plenty of amenities and places they would need to go within walking or biking distance. If they need to travel to the mall or a neighboring town, there are ample bus and rail services, right?


Posted by: Tyro on January 27, 2008 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

Clio has it about right, except for one thing- bench seats. Better put some condoms in the glovebox.

But, realistically, what are the chances legislators would revise a law simply because it's not doing any good? The one thing they can all agree on is more restrictions on personal activities that affect practically nobody else.

Find a population sub-group that is mildly unpopular and write a law about them that doesn't take any money to implement. This is the kind of 'success' you can brag about in that letter to your constituents.

The seamy underside of democracy.

Posted by: serial catowner on January 27, 2008 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

16 and 17 year olds aren't interested in getting their licenses? That's a lot different from when I was that age!

Posted by: Mark S. on January 27, 2008 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

Not paying attention or not being able to pay attention is the biggest cause of accidents for all age groups.

Turn off the radio, cell phone, iPod, iPhone etc. and please don't talk to the driver while the bus in in motion.

Posted by: slanted tom on January 27, 2008 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

My 17-year-old son is absolutely uninterested in learning to drive. We're dragging him kicking and screaming into it. Several of his friends are the same way. Others are as I was when I was 15 1/2 and can't wait.

Posted by: anandine on January 27, 2008 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

A "conservative" is someone who thinks the phrase, "Eat your spinach," is a good thing.

A "liberal" is someone who, when confronted with the absence of civil rights abuses, will invent them.

Posted by: Thinker on January 27, 2008 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

Yep--I was down there on my 16th birthday getting a license. My 16yo finally got his learners permit after a fair amount of pushing. The attitude is baffling--even in my own kid I don't understand it.

Posted by: anonymous on January 27, 2008 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know about that, serial catowner. Remember, these are very limber teenagers, and fast. Bucket seats are no real impediment to them, either.

Posted by: redterror on January 27, 2008 at 7:16 PM | PERMALINK

Why not require the same supervision that CA requires for 16 year olds for anyone wanting to drive?

BTW, the behemoth approach, while keeping your kids safe, increases the danger to everyone else on the road - particularly pedestrians and cyclists but other drivers as well.

Posted by: Mark on January 27, 2008 at 7:30 PM | PERMALINK

Ironically, lots of Gran Turismo experience helped me out in a panic-type situation. Wet road, tires started slipping on a (low-speed) curve, I corrected and kept on going. Only on reflection did it occur to me that the only reason I could pull out of a curve by reflex was because of hours of drifting practice on the ol' Playstation...

But that's not the norm, and if I'd been actually driving recklessly, there's no way I'd have kept the thing on the road.

As far as letting teenagers drive, the post has a good point. When you're 16, you're (at least nominally) under parental authority, you're probably not doing a lot of freeway driving, you're probably doing a lot more local-streets driving. This is a much better way to pick up the fundamentals, no? Especially compared to an eighteen-year-old with no parental supervision cutting his teeth on the (not so) open highway...

Posted by: Avatar on January 27, 2008 at 7:34 PM | PERMALINK

>"16 and 17 year olds aren't interested in getting their licenses? That's a lot different from when I was that age!"

Indeed it has changed. My generation was champing at the bit to learn to drive. It would make a good masters or doctorate thesis to find out what's changed.

Off the cuff, I think that electronic entertainment (video games, DVD's etc.) may have a lot to do with it.

I see quite a few kids 'hanging' in smaller groups and staying at home playing video games rather than going out to 'do things'.

Posted by: Buford on January 27, 2008 at 7:40 PM | PERMALINK

It does come down to parental involvement, like most things...

I'd be curious to find out if most parents today are willing to put in the hours riding in the passenger seat that a student driver needs. I know parents who are reluctant to let their 14-year-old cross a busy street (the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood). I can't even imagine them feeling secure enough to let that kid behind the wheel of a car two years later.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on January 27, 2008 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK

Kids, and I guess we are all kids, learn the hard way. The first week my brother was in college, he and his friends went drinking and driving. They totaled the car. The second week my brother was in college, he and his friends went drinking and driving. They totaled the car. The third week my brother was in college, he and his friends went drinking and driving. They totaled the car. At that point, my brother decided that drinking and driving didn't mix, a rule that he followed, most of the time, for the rest of his life.

Posted by: Alan Vanneman on January 27, 2008 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

My mother had very bad eyes (even with correction) and never had a driver's license. My father had to take out-of-town construction jobs, and often came home only on weekends. We didn't have much money, and relied on favors from friends and taxicabs. I was the oldest; it was a great relief to the family when I turned 16 and could start ferrying the family around (in a crappy old junker, of course).

Fortunately for my family, the current laws restricting 16 year old drivers were not in effect then. It would have made my driver's license nearly useless to the family.

Posted by: Joe Buck on January 27, 2008 at 10:16 PM | PERMALINK

What an enormous amount of agonizing. Move to a city and give them a subway map. Teen fatalities on subways are, I believe, pretty low.

Posted by: bostonian in Brooklyn on January 27, 2008 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

My son and his friends said they did not want driver's licences. They reasoned correctly that once they obtained licences they would have to get jobs. Their girlfriends put a stop to this nonsense.

Posted by: Lee Raby on January 27, 2008 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

Off the cuff, I think that electronic entertainment (video games, DVD's etc.) may have a lot to do with it.

I think it's the anal sex and blow job parties. It was on Oprah.

Posted by: Orson on January 28, 2008 at 12:05 AM | PERMALINK

Did the study take into account any changes in drug and alcohol usage among these age groups during the intervening period ?

Posted by: rbe1 on January 28, 2008 at 4:29 AM | PERMALINK

The only reason I can figure out that kids would not really, really want drivers' licenses is because their parents are all-too-willing to drive them wherever they want.

My father worked two weekends out of every three and my mom had to spend all day Saturday running all the errands she didn't have time for during the week. Without a car, I was stranded.

Posted by: Tyro on January 28, 2008 at 7:41 AM | PERMALINK

I can certainly attest to how we aren't in such a hurry to get our licenses. I'm 20 and live in California as well-- and I was definitely in no rush to get my license. But it wasn't because of DVD's or video games; it was just that my parents rarely had time to take me out and practice, so I slowly learned how to drive over the course of a year and a half (with a permit, of course!).

My friends, however, just didn't feel like shelling out the money for driver training classes. All of them drove illegally at some point. Some of them just didn't want their parents to buy them a clunker. Others didn't want the added responsibility of regularly running errands.

Posted by: Natascha on January 28, 2008 at 9:17 AM | PERMALINK

This is just another example of the way we are infantisizing our youth. I think it is a little bit of the tyranny of the baby boomers. "Hey, drinking was legal at 18 when I was that age but now that I'm older let's raise the age. The same with driving."

I also think there has been a steady drumbeat of how scary the world is. This comes both from the media, which thrives on conflict and drama, and also from those who would wish to keep the populace alarmed. Alarmed people seek scapegoats, are more subservient to authority, and more 'conservative.'

I dropped someone off at the airport yesterday and there were signs posted everywhere stating that the threat level was ORANGE meaning a terrorist attack was IMMINENT!

So all the good citizens lined up to present their papers, to be questioned, and to have their belongings searched.

Posted by: Tripp on January 28, 2008 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

its judgment, not experience

Posted by: mike on January 28, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with both Males and Tripp, too many states and parents are infantilizing teenagers.

Experience and nothing else is what is going to lower teen driving accidents and deaths. And Mike, you don't get good judgment until you've learned from experience.

My god, Alexander the Great was Regant of Macedonia at the age of 16 and yet American parents and governments insist on treating teens as if they were 5 years old.

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on January 28, 2008 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK
The goal, of course, was to cut down on dangerous driving by teens and reduce the teen fatality rate on the road.

Or was it to reduce insurance payouts rather than driver fatalities? As I recall, the big interest groups pushing for the law were insurance companies, who aren't known for being particularly concerned with much beyond their own bottom line.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 28, 2008 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

This is just another example of the way we are infantisizing our youth. I think it is a little bit of the tyranny of the baby boomers. "Hey, drinking was legal at 18 when I was that age but now that I'm older let's raise the age. The same with driving."

Word. Don't get me started on the drinking age adn the demonization of alcohol in this country. It's ludicrous that someone in this country can be in combat in Iraq, vote, or perform in a porno, years before they can legally buy a beer. Keep the blood alcohol limit at 0.0 until 21, but let them drink at 18 without the puritan hysterics -- or at 16 like in Europe.

As for teen driving, the best thing you can do for them is send them to Bondurant or a similar advanced-driving class, where they'll learn stuff like skid control, accident avoidance, cornering and braking techniques they won't pick up in Driver's Ed. And perhaps also pick up the mindset that driving is a serious activity requiring concentration and skill, and that their car is not a rolling living room where you apply eyeliner and fiddle with the iPod while hurtling along at 75mph.

Posted by: Mike G on January 28, 2008 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

Driving or not driving - I absolutely LOVE that folks are looking in to the effectiveness of a well-meaning law.

And I would really LOVE it if lawmakers would reconsider well-intentioned laws that aren't achieving their intended effect.

Love the post Kevin - it's a step in the right direction.

Posted by: jackifus on January 28, 2008 at 7:54 PM | PERMALINK

Many social experiments that end in restrictive laws end up not working.

Ya don't say.

Laws banning or prohibiting things that strike us as unfortunate or meddlesome don't generally tend to stop people determined to break the law from doing them anyway...

The prohibitionist mentality afflicts lefties and righties alike.

Posted by: Sebastian-PGP on January 30, 2008 at 3:35 AM | PERMALINK



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