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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Thinking Out Loud: Taking The Keys

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The car was totaled.

Driver Inexperience To Blame

My memory of the accident is vivid: on a Saturday evening in late February, after a steady rain had turned to snow, I was driving south on Route 7, traveling up the short but steep hill that passes into Williamstown, Mass. at its' peak.

Because of the weather , I was driving well under the 50 mile-an-hour speed limit posted at that time [the speed limit in that area has since been reduced].

Suddenly, the car went into a skid, and crossed into the northbound lane. The vehicle, a small four-door sedan, struck and bounced off the rocky ledges at the roadside three or four times before the vehicle came to a stop.

When the state police arrived at the accident scene, they investigated , and chalked the crash up to two factors, road conditions and driver inexperience. For those who may be curious, I was not cited.

I agree that driver inexperience contributed to the accident. I had received my driver's license during the summer months,less than a year prior to the crash. The crash occurred during the first winter I traveled New England roads as a licensed driver.

I was 35 years old.

Does Inexperience Have A Magic Number?

A proposal to increase the state age for acquiring a Massachusetts driver's license to 17 1/2 is headed for the state House of Representatives after the state Ways and Means Committee gave the proposed bill a thumbs-up on May 22. Proponents of the bill claim that raising the driver's license age will save lives by adding a year of maturity to the psyches of young drivers; those who oppose the bill argue that inexperience is inexperience at any age, that age isn't the only, or even the best, indicator of maturity, and keeping licenses from youth in rural areas or regions that lack adequate mass transit systems will keep them from jobs or other pursuits.

Unscientific But True

The issue took center stage for a time in April, and since then, I have been paying a bit more attention to the near-miss accidents that I've observed or involve me directly while I am driving. My findings are of course unscientific and based solely on my observations at specific points in specific locations.

But nonetheless, I must say that of the dozen or so [probably 15 is a better number] near-miss collisions I personally witnessed, not one involved a teen-aged driver.

That's right, not one.

Get Off The Freakin' Phone!

The majority of the near-misses did involve adults, male and female, using cell phones. One very memorable incident, which occurred last week as I was driving east on Route 2, involved a woman, with children in the vehicle, who was speaking into a cell phone and trying to exit Adams Road [just past Michael's restaurant] onto Route 2. She looked to the right, and then pulled directly into the path of my vehicle without ever looking to the left.

Trust me, it has been awhile since this woman's age ended with "teen." I know because I was close enough when she pulled out to get a very good look at her.

The Numbers Game

It is true that teen driver vehicle accident statistics are dismal.

According to information collected by the Insurance Information Institute, which includes data from the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, during 2004, 6,900 drivers under age 20 were involved in fatal car crashes. There were about 9,369,000 drivers under age 20 in 2004, the statistics state,of those, about 2,690,000 were involved in single vehicle, multiple vehicle, and non-fatal crashes.

But the data that reflected driver safety statistics for drivers age 20 to 24 didn't appear to show dramatic improvement. According to the information, of the about 16,970,000 drivers within the age range, 9,000 were involved in vehicle fatalities during 2004.

And I am curious about these statistics; while they identify the numbers of people "involved" in crashes, they do not reveal who was actually found to be "at fault." It is possible for a teen-aged driver to be "involved" in an accident without the crash being their fault.

The Law As It Stands

Existing state regulations that affect youth driver's licenses are quite strict.

Learner's permits may be acquired [after passing a written exam] at age 16. While a driver's license may be issued at age 16 1/2, there are conditions: a state approved driver education program that includes classroom instruction and behind-the-wheel instruction must have been successfully completed, a parent or guardian must certify that they have provided an additional 12 hours of supervised driving experience, the learner's permit must have been in place for a minimum of six months, and the driver must provide proof of a clean driving record for the six months immediately preceding the driver's license road test.

Even when those conditions are met, a driver's license issued to those between 16 1/2 and 18 years old is a "junior driver's license" and has accompanying restrictions.

Existing penalties for licensed drivers who are under age 18 include license suspension for driving offenses that involve illegal substances, including alcoholic beverages.

And, according to information included in a "Frequently Asked Questions" booklet published by the state Registry of Motor Vehicles, a "clean driving record" for purposes of acquiring a driver's license prior to the age of 18 is tarnished if drug or alcoholic beverage offenses of any nature appear on the person's record.

The information is presented as follows: "You would have to have a clean driving record and you would not be allowed to take the road test if, within the six [6] months preceding the date of the test: You had any surchargeable incident under Massachusetts law or the law of another state [at fault accidents, moving violations,etc.], You had your learner's permit suspended for drugs or alcohol related motor vehicle violations, or, You had been convicted for the violation of any drug or alcohol related laws in Massachusetts or in another state ["convicted" includes charges that are "continued without a finding" or "placed on file."]."

Pretty strict stuff. These are some tight laws, and I am failing to understand how increasing the driving age would make any of the existing laws any stronger.

Speed Kills At Any Age

A big problem that does seem to impact young drivers is a combination of driver inexperience and excessive speed. When I say excessive speed, I am not referring only to the obvious situation of a young person blazing down the highway at 75 miles per hour with the windows rolled down and the music blaring. I am talking about the inexperienced driver who cruises down a rain-slicked roadway doing 50 in a 50, not realizing that road and weather conditions require slower driving speeds.

Oh, wait a minute, I see that happening with experienced drivers as well. Yup, it is usually an older person who passes me on a snow- and ice-covered Route 7 traveling in the big four-wheel drive vehicle at 60 miles per hour during a snow storm.

And anyone who believes that experienced drivers don't die or cause the deaths of others as a result of poor driving habits is sadly mistaken.

Parental Role

Raising the driving age won't solve the problems of road rage, of parents who transported their children for years while berating other drivers for driving too slowly or while speeding or violating traffic laws. It won't erase driver inexperience.

Parents have very good insights into their children's maturity level. If, as a parent, you are not confident that your child is ready to safely operate a motor vehicle, don't sign the consent forms.

If you believed that your child was ready to handle the responsibilities of driving and subsequently discovered that you were mistaken, rescind the privilege sooner rather than later, rather than too late.

Set a driving example that you would like your child to emulate. If you take chances and, because you have managed to avoid the consequences or repercussions of your carelessness, brag about your exceptional driving skills, I promise you, your child will do the same.

Maybe without the same outcome.

Perhaps it is time to increase the behind-the-wheel driving time requirement for driver education programs. Classroom education is fine but road hours are far more important to driving safety. How well one reads and memorizes the precise wording of a traffic law is inconsequential when a vehicle goes into an unexpected skid on an icy road. Knowing that red means stop and green means go can't hold a candle to knowing how to react when a tire blows out at 50 miles per hour.

What Are Insurance Companies Saying?

The "inexperienced driver" factor will not change simply by increasing the driver's license age, in my opinion.

But there is a way to convince me otherwise.

Find me one automobile insurance company who promises to drop the rates for Massachusetts youth drivers - significantly and across the board - if a driver's license age of 17 1/2 is imposed.

The truth is teen-age drivers and young passengers are killed in motor vehicle crashes. Adults and infants are killed in motor vehicle accidents. People crossing streets are killed as a result of motor vehicle accidents. Some accidents are caused by drunk drivers who are 17, some accidents are caused by drunk drivers who are 32. Some accidents are caused by speeding drivers who are in their teens, some accidents are caused by speeding drivers who are in their 40s or 50s.

Some accidents are simply that, accidents. And as long as there are vehicles and humans to drive them, accidents will occur and lives will be lost.

Let's tackle the real, multi-faceted issues of safe driving. Safe, responsible drivers follow the speed limits, adjust them downward when necessary, and respect other drivers.

Intelligent drivers understand that, whether they agree or not, a breathalyzer reading of .08 means that you can be arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and therefore, they avoid having the beer before making the trip to the hardware store. Or, they don't make the trip.

Smart parents do not violate traffic and speed laws and then make excuses for themselves to their children. You have not explained your "very good reason" for the illegal maneuver, you have simply delivered a lesson in excusing poor driving behaviors.

I urge state legislators to examine this proposal very, very closely before approving a driver's license age increase. Debate long and hard about what genuine benefit the action might have.

And to every teen-age driver in the state, PLEASE slow down, DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE, stay off the damn cell phone, and drive responsibly.

Because if the answer to eliminating driver inexperience issues is to raise the driver's license age, parents may someday be driving their 25-year-old children to their jobs.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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