Driving: Teenage America’s Deadliest Preventable Epidemic



A 17-year-old driver killed two in this recent Queens crash.

Automobile crashes are the number one killer of teenagers in the United States, with nearly 6,000 deaths a year for the past decade, and more than 300,000 injuries annually. Yet millions of parents continue to let their kids drive unsupervised, many of them counting on God and government to keep them safe.

Last Sunday’s New York Times profiled families in the Tri-State region who have lost children on the roads, and examined state efforts to reduce the death tolls. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and localities including Westchester have enacted restrictions on teen driving, with mixed results. Oddly — or perhaps not — for all the anguish expressed in these articles, there is little discussion about the fact that driving is a voluntary activity, particularly for school-age children. Writer Gerri Hirshey’s son, for example, accumulated a number of citations shortly after getting his license, though she exposed him to daily newspaper accounts of teen crashes. Despite his record so far behind the wheel, he still drives himself and his 15-year-old sister to school, "aided by four-wheel drive, seat belts, lectures, prayers" and "the morning’s maternal cliché — be careful, go slowly, pay attention."

The inevitability with which society treats this "epidemic" is not lost on Times readers, who write:

  • The issue goes far deeper than teenagers. All Americans drive recklessly. We are always in a hurry. We hide behind the anonymity of a motor vehicle to cast aside our kind, gentle natures and to allow the lawless, reckless, savage in us to emerge. Car manufacturers advertise this in their T.V. commercials showing daring maneuvers and warning in letters too small to see "Professional stunt driver, do not attempt".
  • Driving an automobile today is one of the most complicated activities most of us undertake on a daily basis, yet Americans, in general, treat their cars as extensions of their living rooms.
  • The "high school senior with a new girlfriend and places to go" would be much safer if he could walk or take the subway. There’s a reason why the teenage death rate in New York City is well below average: Kids in the city generally don’t drive, and driving is the single most dangerous activity that most people engage in.
  • andrew

    I dream of a day when teenagers think bicycles are cool and sexy. Especially in urban areas, where as soon as kids get their license they want to emulate their favorite hip-hop star and drive a pimped out Escalade, or Tokyo Drift. It makes me furious.

  • Jabber

    Thought this was one of the Times’ better forays into transportation on any topic, in any section.

  • Mark

    Many of these kids are victims of post-WWII suburban zoning, which places housing, schools, shopping, etc. all in separate pods, the distances bridgable only by driving. I grew up in a Jersey suburb but it was a town that had the bone structure of an old village. So I could always walk to school. There was also a small shopping center nearby with a supermarket, drugstore, hardware store, etc. all within a 10-minute walk. The library was a half-hour walk. I never needed to drive anywhere. Now I realize just how lucky I was. When I was very small, back in the early 1960s, you could still see the trolley tracks running down the main street, though the trolleys themselves were long gone.

  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think at age 18, we give kids a choice: a license to drink or a license to drive. Then at 21, they can get both. I think most would choose to drink and the one that chooses to drive gets to be their designated driver!

  • Vroomfondel

    Sadly, the inevitability with which society treats this “epidemic” seems to be lost on the vast majority of Times readers. Of the 66 comments on the article, only six or seven are critical of the dominant car culture, and I wrote two of those (including one that was quoted above, w00t!).

    I only saw the article after someone posted a link on Streetsblog and my initial comment was one of the first critical ones, so that I have this sinking feeling that the critical posters are just Streetsbloggers talking to each other. In the meantime, the rest of the country takes cars for granted and dreams up increasingly harebrained schemes to improve teenage driving (in-car video surveillance!).

  • Concerned Parent

    Any parents of kids out there? I’ve got two kids, 13 and 15. They walk and take the subway and bus by themselves. So far so good.

    But both are afraid to ride bicycles on the street. They don’t think it’s uncool. We had a bicycle stolen from the library, and people get killed riding. Their uncle was almost killed to someone who made a left turn right into him up in the Capital District. He went through the windshield but survived because he WAS wearing his helmet. A ticket was issued, but no charges were filed.

    One child definately wants to drive. The other is unsure. She likes to ride horses in Prospect Park, which is already about as much fear as I can handle.

    Our car is getting old. Should we replace it, or live without it, renting when we need one? If the latter, how will my kids learn to drive? Should they, given they are Americans and what our culture is? And unless they are going to drive regularly and get better at it, would it be unsafe?

    I learned to drive elsewhere, as did, I expect, many of you. So driving irregularly because I live in the city is not a problem. But the situation for the kids is different. Of course, if they had been riding bicycles on the street they might have gained the traffic skills needed to drive, just as having driven for 30 years helped me when I decided to try riding a bike on the street last summer. But they haven’t.

    Not that they would listen to me at this age anyway, but what do I tell them? This is an actual, practical problem. Any opinions?

  • Bink

    Kids in Osaka, Japan have just the attitude towards bikes you wish US teenagers had, Andrew. We saw so many teens and 20s on really cool bikes, with passengers riding on the foot pegs and racks. It was heartwarming. And the cars were well behaved and not many in number in the core area of the city.

    Concerned Parent, I occassionally think of not renewing my drivers license, but I’m always glad I didn’t when I go somewhere in the West, like Colorado, or Utah. Such amazing areas that would be pretty tough to see without the ability to rent a car. I know, a pretty silly reason, but there you have it.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    My real gage on how willing we are as a society to stop the auto-slaughter (not very) is not what we do to bring young people into the driver pool safely it is our unwillingness to take the keys from our aged parents at the other end of the pendulum. Until the lawmakers step up to the plate and institute more strict licensing regulations for our senior citizens, many of whom we know are incapable of driving, I don’t expect to see any meaningful reform through the balance of the life cycle.

  • Gelston

    Oh we old folks are traffic calming devices. Leave us alone 🙂

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Concerned Parent, I know many people who learned to drive later in life and did fine. I also know several people who got their licenses when they were teenagers but have never felt at home behind the wheel. So I don’t think that your kids need to learn to drive now. The greater New York area and most college campuses are perfectly fine for someone without a car. It’s only if the kid decides to look for a job in sprawlsville that it matters.

  • david

    Dear Concerned Parent,
    I didnt learn to drive until I was 23. I rarely drive and I’m definitely not as good as someone who has been driving every day since 16. On the flip side, because I am aware of this, I am always extra cautious, never drink and drive, etc, and have never had an accident so far…Fingers crossed.

  • Gelston

    One benefit of learning to drive is experiencing first hand how a motorist perceives pedestrians (and bicycles). They’ll learn how invisible they often are, even to attentive drivers.

  • Vroomfondel

    Concerned Parent,
    A couple of unstructured thoughts on your post:

    – About the relative coolness of biking and driving: I grew up in a small place where driving was a necessity. I remember that I was very impressed when I got to college and met suave city kids who had never felt the need to drive. To me, being unable to drive is way cool. Am I the only one who feels that way?

    – I understand why your kids are afraid to ride their bikes on the street. I get the impression that lots of people have no idea how to ride a bike in traffic. I’m wondering: Do American schools teach bicycle safety? I grew up in Europe, and we had a serious bicycle safety course in elementary school, complete with a written exam and a road test. I believe it was effective, with the added benefit that we grew up to be drivers with an appreciation of the concerns of bikers.

    – I don’t think that biking experience helps a lot when learning to drive. Driving experience may scale down to help with biking, but I doubt that biking experience scales up to handle a ton or two of steel at high velocities. The only way to become a good driver is lots of driving, and I doubt that your kids will get to drive a lot in the city. (At least, I’m hoping they won’t…)

  • Jeff Payne is doing a huge amount to save the lives of young American drivers – http://www.volvoforlifeawards.com/cgi-bin/iowa/english/vote/safety/index.html
    Drivers Edge Driving Courses will save many lives – your vote could help them receive $100,000 from Volvo which could help save countless more…

  • brent

    The New Yorker printed a very good reader’s letter in this weeks issue about bicycling in our culture- a pretty good step for a publication that sometimes feels like it could drift towards irrelevance.

  • Spud Spudly

    Vroomfondel, I’m the one who posted the Times story here earlier. It hits home with me not because anyone in my family has been injured in a car accident (thank goodness) but because I saw myself in that story. I almost rolled my mom’s Toyota somewhere in Totowa, NJ, less than one month after getting my license. I learned to drive and lived in Bklyn but was driving with three friends in the car in Jersey when I simply changed lanes too fast and lost control. Next thing we were skidding onto the shoulder backwards and next thing after that we slid into a rock and the car was on its side and we were all climbing out the passengers window.

    There were no drugs or alcohol involved, the weather was perfect and I wasn’t speeding or joking around or using a cell phone (I don’t think they existed back then). I was just an inexperienced 17-year-old who didn’t know that you shouldn’t change lanes so quickly. Thankfully nobody was hurt and I’ve never experienced anything like that again. But that’s why I get so angry when I see stories like the kid last week who crashed his Dodge Charger SRT8, which some dummy gave him as a gift.

  • curmudgeon

    Anybody ever see any comparative studies of how drivers are trained elsewhere? My guess that it’s far more rigorous. Here in ‘Merica, driving is considered such a right, or such a part of life (like breathing), that driver’s ed has largely become perfunctory. Many years ago, I had a year-long high school driver’s ed class. New York has largely farmed out it’s driver’s ed to little companies, some of whom contract themselves out to the schools. But it’s no longer offered or mandatory at every high school.
    My impression of New York drivers is that they don’t know how lanes work at intersections (i.e., making a right turn from the middle or left lane) and they aren’t too familiar with the rules of yielding to bicycles or to other motorists (how many times do you see people turning left cut off straight through traffic). That’s what you get when the state only requires people to take a 5 hour class to get a license to operate heavy equipment at high speed.

    I think it would be great for schools to teach bike safety at the pre-teen or middle school levels–more than just a one hour presentation from the local traffic safety officer. There are programs in other states (Texas & Hawaii come to mind) where students take a multi-class, on-bike safety curriculum through their PE classes. But it takes a commitment from schools & the State Dept. of Ed. to do that. Most will find excuses to do nothing (lack of bikes, too much liability, too busy teaching to standardized tests or jump the hurdles imposed by No Child Left Behind).

    Curmudgeon

  • Hilary

    On the other hand, American DMV’s erect mountains of bureaucratic hurdles in the paperwork to get a learner’s permit or license. That’s because a license has become a defacto proof of residency, opening the door to benefits like (in Massachusetts)health care. Harvard students are being sent back for additional forms three and four times, and still can get licenses. Has nothing to do with the driving ability (which may also be terrible.)

  • Hilary

    I meant “can’t”

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