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Americans are in love with their automobiles. In a country where every household averages two cars, the availability of personal, motorized vehicle is not a luxury, but rather a necessity. We often take for granted the opportunities afforded by our motorized society. Instead of relying on mass transit, those with automobiles have the luxury and convenience of traveling on their own time, and of their own means (not to mention the certain aspect of privacy also associated with cars).
The automobile, however, has a dark side. Pollution and traffic congestion are concerns, but the greatest problems associated with automobiles are their safety, or lack thereof. Car accidents are one of the leading killers in the country each year, accounting for about 40,000 deaths in the year 2001 alone (DriveHomeSafe website). In fact, it has been estimated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) that 1 out of every 5 drivers will be involved in an accident during their lifetimes ("Beginning Teenage Drivers"). Of course, not every accident results in a fatality, but relatively minor accidents can cause substantial injury.
It has been a goal of the NHTSA, the legislators in Washington, and local and state governments for years to improve safety on America's roads ("Beginning Teenage Drivers"). These efforts have often come in the form of measures taken to improve the safety of the cars themselves, for example, mandatory seatbelt laws pertaining to automobile manufacturers were passed in the 1960s. Recently, some states have passed mandatory seatbelt law pertaining to drivers. Also implemented was a federal guideline regarding blood alcohol levels for drivers. While these efforts have helped increase the safety on America's roads, they have not done enough to curb the massive amounts of accidents that occur each year.
I believe that lawmakers are neglecting one of the main issues pertaining to road safety, which is, teenage driving. According to a 2001 issue of the Journal of Trauma Nursing, car crashes account for 6,000 deaths annually of American teens, yet this age group constitutes only 6.7% of the total driving population (Direnfeld). The author of the article, Gary Direnfeld, goes on to argue that the fact that teenagers account for 14% of all the fatal crashes in the country deserves attention by lawmakers and policymakers. He writes, "Given that automobile crashes are the leading cause of injury and death in teens, you can pretty much say that teens drive themselves to trauma centers. And, they do this in record numbers" (Direnfeld).
The issue of teen drivers has been addressed before, but obviously, the measures taken to improve their safety have done little to curb the number of accidents teenagers are involved in. In order to address the problem effectively, we need to first explore the reasons why teenagers are more prone to accidents then the rest of the driving population.
According to the DriveHomeSafe website, there are a number of factors more identifiable with teenagers than other age groups. Firstly, the teenage lifestyle is more conducive to drowsiness on the road than other lifestyles. It is a known fact that teenagers spend later hours out at night, often forcing them to drive past midnight (a time when our bodies naturally are drowsy). An article within the website titled "Teens Human Factors Harmfully Affect Their Driving," emphasizes the correlation between teenage drivers and drowsiness, "Teen drivers are a higher risk to drive when drowsy than older drivers. Teenagers do not get as much sleep as they should. Drowsiness impairs judgement and is likely to be a factor when teens drive at night." The rest of the factors influencing the accident rate with teenagers are more related to the actual driving skills of the individuals. The same website lists two of the most important ones: teens start out as new drivers with very little training, and, teens are more prone to distractions than any other age group.
In summarizing the main reasons behind the increased accidents of teenagers, it can be inferred that a lack of experience is the primary culprit. Therefore, in order to properly address this issue, lawmakers need to find ways to legally require more training and road experience before licensing teenagers. My proposal is that the federal government pass a law (similar in scope to the one passed pertaining to blood alcohol) requiring all drivers to be a minimum age of 18. As the law stands today, there is no federal mandate regarding licensing age minimums. In fact, several states only require individuals to reach the age of 15 to obtain a driver's license (DriveHomeSafe website). Some states, in trying to provide more experience, employ a "graduated" approach to licensing. This program licenses individuals as young as 16, but requires certain mandates before full driver privileges are granted (DriveHomeSafe website). These mandates can include: the necessity of a licensed driver within the car at all times, no more than two friends allowed, etc. (DriveHomeSafe website).
The graduated licensing program is without a doubt a step in the right direction, but I still think that it misses the main point. Mandates or no mandates, when a 16-year-old is placed behind the wheel of an automobile, he or she is in direct control of it. It is not as if the licensed passenger can make up for the newly licensed driver's lack of experience. While these programs have been shown to be effective in the states they are employed, the scope of their effectiveness is still not what it needs to be. Accidents involving teenagers within these states are still the highest among age groups.
Again, this problem needs to be put in the context of inexperience, which I think relates more to age than anything else does. Andrew Dys, a writer for the South Carolina Herald, reported on the outcry from families around the state urging lawmakers to raise the driving age. The reason he cites lack of experience on the road, mostly due to a lack of maturity (Dys). Many of those in which he interviewed said that fifteen and sixteen-year-olds are simply too young to be behind the wheel (Dys). They are not even halfway through high school, and they are immediately allowed instant access to the fast-paced roads of America.
With every policy or regulation, there are going to be opponents. The primary argument against raising the driving age to 18 is based around that of individual liberty (Direnfeld). The fact that our culture has allowed teenagers to drive independently at the young ages of 15 and 16 for so long makes it very hard to immediately step up the regulation of this activity. Teenagers want their independence, and is often the case, parents want to give that independence. Often, the ability of transportation allows students to conduct their own business with much greater ease, such as: driving to school, sports, errands, work, etc. The argument has been made that removing car privileges would result in the decrease of many of these activities. Decreasing these activities, opponents say, often leads to drug use and delinquency in teenagers.
When the proposition of raising the driving age was introduced in Kansas, it was immediately attacked by the Kansas Farm Bureau, which claimed that child drivers were essential for the operation of family farms. John Lechliter, a writer for the Garden City Telegram summed it up, "Our region has a wealth of family farms, and an independent nature that inherently resists state and federal commandments. It's long been a tradition around these parts to put kids behind the wheel as soon as they're big enough to reach the pedals."
Some critics also contend that the focus of policymaking should be on the design of the cars, rather than those that operate them. They point to car accident evidence, which shows that injuries sustained were due to what they consider "faulty" design. In their book, The Struggle for Auto Safety, Jerry Mashaw and David Harfst write, "The epidemiologist is led almost inexorably, when asked to describe the cause of the injury, not the cause of the accident. From this perspective preventing the accident is only one of many strategies for preventing or ameliorating the injury" (3).
The opponents' argument certainly has some merit -- it would certainly be more difficult for teenagers to find means of transportation, and in some cases, teenagers need the ability to operate cars for financial reasons (as for the argument about design flaw -- I think the responsibility of drivers can never be underestimated). Nevertheless, in any case of policymaking, one has to balance the pros with the cons, and in this case, it is convenience vs. safety. If it was only a handful of teenagers that died each year, then maybe the convenience of millions of others might take precedence, but this is not the case. Six thousand teenagers die annually due to car accidents, and the major cause is not drug related, alcohol related, or even solely attributable to drowsiness. The real reason this number is so high is because teenagers…[continue]
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