How Young Is Too Young to Drive?

Teenagers are fucking idiots.

On Saturday, September 25, a 16-year-old drove a pickup truck into a group of six cyclists training for an Ironman in Waller County, Texas, just outside of Houston. Chase Ferrell, another member of the same training ride who witnessed the collision, says the driver had just “rolled coal,” or blown black diesel smoke on him, and was speeding up to do the same to the victims when he ran into them instead. Four of the victims were taken to hospitals, two of them by helicopter.

“Do you think I’m going to jail?” asked the driver amid the aftermath of the collision. This remains to be seen; he has not been charged and his name has not been released.

This is far from the first time an act of senseless motor vehicular violence has compelled us to contemplate our unique and profound vulnerability as lovers of cycling. But each tragedy also raises its own unique questions, and this one has advocates asking: At what age should we allow people to drive?

Statistically, drivers between the ages of 16 and 17 are by far the most dangerous on the road; in fact, their rate of involvement in crashes is almost double that of drivers age 18-to-19. Even here in the car-centric United States, only four states allow 16-year-olds unrestricted licenses (though ten states will grant them at 16 and a half, and two more at 16 and three-quarters). In Texas, a 16-year-old can obtain a provisional driver license, which includes restrictions such as not driving between midnight and 5 A.M., and not having more than one passenger who’s under 21, which is a polite way of saying you can’t have a carload full of fellow idiots. By way of comparison, in New York State, 16-year-olds with junior licenses have more restrictions on them and can only drive without another licensed person in the car in certain parts of the state, though a 17-year-old who has taken a driver education course and passed all their related exams can operate a motor vehicle statewide without restrictions. (New York has roughly half as many total motor vehicle crash fatalities per vehicle mile traveled as Texas.)

Of course, as you may recall from your own youth, you don’t wake up on the day you turn 18 fully mature and equipped to make rational decisions at all times. You may also, as I do, look back at your teenage years and your relationship with cars and marvel at the fact that you survived at all, or that you weren’t involved in a crash with horrific consequences.

I vividly remember still being too young to drive in my home state of New York, white-knuckling it in the passenger seat of my “mature” 18-year-old friend’s car as he revved and swerved and slalomed and cornered hard enough to flatten my face against the window numerous times. Did I fear for my own safety, and the safety of everyone else unlucky enough to be near us? Yes. Did I implore him to slow down? Absolutely not. I wanted him to think I was cool, and anyway, even if I had protested, he wouldn’t have heard me over the cochlea-clobbering decibels generated by the amplifier in the trunk. So instead I cracked the window, lit another one of the cigarettes I was too young to legally purchase, and surrendered to a driver who made even the most addled yellow cab driver seem like a somnolent senior in comparison.

And while I may have duly waited until my 17th birthday to drive unaccompanied, plenty of my classmates didn’t. One would regularly steal his parents’ car late at night and shuttle people to the liquor store that happily served minors. Others got licenses in Florida using their grandparents’ address. (Every single New Yorker has at least one grandparent in Florida.) Once I did start driving on my own, I was diligent and responsible—95 percent of the time. The remaining 5 percent, I was a serious liability to myself and everyone around me.

When I was taking drivers’ ed around 1990, the anti-drunk driving movement was at its apex, with MADD and SADD churning out endless PSAs aimed squarely at my classmates and me. Driving drunk, I was made to understand, was the most reckless and irresponsible thing I could possibly do short of sticking a loaded gun in my mouth. Even as a cynical and questioning teen, I didn’t question this. Yet shortly after getting my license, I still found myself driving around drunk late one night with a carload of friends—just one of many bad driving choices I made that could have ruined my life or somebody else’s.

The one thing I can emphatically say that I never did was use my car to harass a group of cyclists, or modify it to emit a noxious James Bond-esque smokescreen. But is that really something to feel good about? Yes, in blasting a bunch of riders with diesel smoke you’re playing with their lives. But you’re also flirting with people’s lives when you’re taking turns flooring your friend’s new sports car after school like I did. Had one of us crashed into a school bus would that have been any better? (The friend eventually totaled the sports car; fortunately I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.) Around this time I also figured out I could swing my leg over the console of my girlfriend’s tiny Geo Tracker and drive it from the passenger seat, which I’d do just to mess with her when she got out of the car. I’d have been all over the tabloids had I managed to put the diminutive 4×4 through the window of a Burger King—especially if there had been a table full of kids in paper crowns on the other side of it.

The facile conclusion to draw from all this is that teenagers shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near cars. The reality is that we’re not turkeys walking around with pop-up timers that let the world know when we reach maturity. I also grew up in a place where, had I not been allowed to drive, I could have gotten pretty much everywhere via public transit, or bike, or skateboard, or skulking around in my Doc Martens, all of which I also did depending on the circumstances. However, there are plenty of places in this country where you need to drive in order to participate in everyday life.

Dreams of a post-Green New Deal utopia in which America is festooned with bike lanes and electric scooters and high-speed rail notwithstanding, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. You could argue a wholesale shift away from allowing teenagers to drive would force municipalities and policymakers to create safer and more efficient ways for them to get around. You could also argue that trusting municipalities and policymakers to provide for the responsible teen who needs a dependable way to get to an after-school job is hopelessly naive. When it comes to driving or anything else, there’s probably no worse candidate for a one-size-fits-all solution than the United States.

Reaching driving age is one of our culture’s most profound, and potentially darkest rites of passage. For the first time in our lives we become the captains of our own vessels and can chart our own course, yet in taking the wheel, we hold the power of life and death in our hands. Should 16-year-olds be allowed to drive? That’s debatable, which is why it varies from region to region. Should this particular 16-year-old be allowed to drive? Absolutely not. His attorney says this was a “serious accident but did not involve any criminal intent,” and the district attorney has yet to announce whether he will be charged. But if we’re prepared to give our kids the power to drive, we also need to be prepared to take it away when they prove themselves incapable of responsibly wielding it.

Because teenagers are fucking idiots.


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