While some believe raising the driving age would lower teen-related car accidents, others advocate the complete opposite as the solution for the same problem

One problem, opposite solutions

In March, the administrative authorities of the Australian state of Victoria rejected the proposition to lower the minimum driving age from 18 to 17 years. The advocates of the proposal argued that young people are professionally disadvantaged by a relatively strict age limit (other Australian states allow 17-year-olds to obtain a license) as in mostly rural Victoria young people need to travel long distances to potential places of employment and an independent means of transportation often proves invaluable. The critics, however, countered that lowering the limit would only result in more fatal accidents.

This particular Australian legislative stand-off echoes an interesting, ongoing debate about our own American laws concerning driving age. Many individuals and some institutions – such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.org/iihs/news/desktopnews/put-off-driver-licensure-to-save-lives) – believe that minimum driving age should be raised due to a disproportionate number of teenagers involved in car crashes. Others beg to differ, stating that there is more to the statistics than meets the eye and that the age limits for obtaining a driver’s license should even be lowered to provide teenagers with more time and opportunities to hone their driving skills before they turn 18 and are legally free of parental supervision. But is there anything to this? This article will offer a closer look at the arguments from both sides of the debate.

Older drivers, fewer accidents, period

The public discourse surrounding the issue of teenage driving usually revolves around one key piece of data – motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in the 15-20-year-old age group. This translates into about 2,000 fatalities per year, or about 6 teenagers dying in car crashes every day (https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/Publication/812363). These statistics are bleak, and other relevant data is equally alarming. For example, studies have shown that teenagers are more prone to make risky decisions while driving or to display more dangerous behaviors than adults. Teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use compared with other age groups. They are also more likely to speed and to drink and drive. In addition, according to crash video research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, distractions, especially those involving mobile phones, are also a problem more pronounced among teenagers than adults, being a factor in 6 out of 10 crashes involving young drivers. A considerable number of studies show that the reason for this, rather than being simply an issue of immaturity, lies in the biology of a teenage brain. According to these studies, areas responsible for control, planning, or reasoning – such as the frontal lobe or the prefrontal lateral cortex – are still developing in teenagers, leaving them predisposed to make decisions based on impulses. This is one of the reasons why some advocate introducing stricter age limits for driving licensure.

Other reasons are based on slightly older yet still significant research from New Jersey, which is the only US state to have the driver’s license minimum age limit set at 17. The data on the rates of car crashes among young drivers come from the years 1992-1996 and the purpose of the study was to compare these rates with the statistics from the neighboring state of Connecticut. The study showed that while in New Jersey, the rate of 16-year-olds involved in fatal crashes was 4.4 per 100,000 individuals, in Connecticut, where the age limit of obtaining driver license is 16, the ratio was 20.7. On the other hand, the same ratio for 17-year-old drivers was slightly higher in New Jersey but the combined rate for 16 and 17-year-olds was still lower than in Connecticut. The study is often cited to show that licensure at an older age translates directly into less fatal accidents.

Overlooked Facts

But a closer look at the statistics on teenage driving reveals an often overlooked aspect of the story. While it is still true that teenagers are involved in more fatal car crashes than any other age group, this trend has begun to change dramatically in the past decade or so. Data from the years 2004-2015 reveal a marked decline in motor vehicle crash-related fatalities as well as in both serious and minor injuries in the 15-20-year-old age group. Fatal accidents dropped by 51 percent, while the injury rate dropped 54 percent for serious injuries and 59 percent for minor injuries. This change is not only very large in itself but equally significant when compared to other age groups – the decrease was greater for teenagers than for drivers 35 to 40 years of age, when considered as a ratio per 100,000 licensed drivers. What should be credited as the force behind this optimistic trend in teenage driving? Research suggests that a considerable part of it is owed to GDL, or Graduated Driving Licensing, that has contributed to reducing crashes involving young drivers by 10 to 30 percent. GDL, however, not only delays full licensure until a later age but also compels teenagers to obtain more supervised training behind the wheel. Thus, when a young adult is finally able to get a full license, he or she has more experience and is better prepared to deal with the challenges of the road. These statistics lead some to believe that laws concerning age limits for driving should be, in fact, less strict, allowing teenagers to start driving sooner to obtain more experience.

Not only the age debate

Voices are also being raised that the focus should be not on the legal driving age itself, but rather on the type and quality of driving training available. Some studies show that more hours of on-the-road training shows little correlation with the rate of crashes among young drivers because the primary factors involved in those crashes are not skill-related but attitude-related. Therefore, programs that more strongly address teenagers’ attitudes towards risk-taking and dangerous on-the-road behaviors promise to be more effective in reducing car crashes than those that simply focus on driving skills. Nevertheless, others still make the argument that even within those skill-centered courses too little emphasis is placed on how to handle emergencies, for example, sliding on black ice.  

Considering that any immediate legislative actions are not likely in any of the states, the debate on the driver license age limit in the US will for the time being remain a theoretical one. In the meantime, due to the success of the GDL programs, proven by many studies and data, some institutions and individuals alike are campaigning for even stricter enforcement of graduated driver licensing. For example, IIHS estimates that “at least 10 states could more than halve or nearly halve their rate of fatal crashes among 15-17 year-olds if they adopted the five strongest GDL provisions”.  Among the states mentioned in the IIHS research is New Jersey, the state with – as mentioned before – the highest licensing age in the country.

The debate on the licensure age limit asks important questions and provides a platform for those involved to express their opinions. Nevertheless, it seems vital to remember that the framework of current laws and regulations likewise provide opportunities to make roads safer for their youngest and most inexperienced users.