Editorial: Driving age: Statistics only part of story

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 11, 2008

An influential safety group’s recommendation that the age for getting a driver’s license be raised to 17 or 18 provokes an interesting question.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety based its recommendation on statistics showing that newly minted teen drivers have a higher accident rate than older motorists. No surprise there. Study after study has shown it to be true. But hold on a minute. It’s also true that drivers over 65 have higher accident rates, per miles driven, than younger drivers. In fact, according to another set of statistics, the fatality rate for drivers 85 and older is nine times as high as that for drivers 25 through 69.
So, if safety is the overriding argument for raising the driving age to 17 or 18, isn’t there an equally sound rationale for automatically withdrawing the licenses of drivers once they a designated age ó say 75 or 80, or at least 85?
Many of you would slam the brakes on that proposal. Even those who might enthusiastically support raising the driving age would oppose summarily depriving senior citizens of the right to drive, even though that would save lives, too.
That’s the problem with basing public policy initiatives on statistics alone. The numbers can’t measure the importance of autonomy, freedom, cultural habit and convenience ó things greatly valued by senior citizens, the parents of teens and teenagers themselves. Nor can the statistics take individual abilities, maturity or vigor into account. While 16-year-olds and octogenarians as a group are more accident prone than other drivers, many individuals within those groups drive more carefully and take fewer risks on the road than drivers who fit the actuarial ideal.
Not that the statistics should be ignored. Higher teen accident rates are what prompted North Carolina and other states to implement graduated licensing, which requires teens to spend more time driving with a parent or other responsible adult before they go solo and regulates the hours during which they can drive and the passengers they can carry. It has been credited with lowering teen accident rates and saving lives, while safety devices such as seat belts and shoulder harnesses, air bags, anti-lock braking systems and stability control devices are making vehicles safer. In similar fashion, safety concerns have prompted several states to scrutinize their procedures for relicensing older drivers. Some set more frequent renewal periods once drivers reach a certain age (54 in North Carolina) or require road tests. At either end of the spectrum, refining the licensing laws is preferable to wholesale restrictions based solely on age.
At some point in the future, when the roads are even more crowded and mass transit is more widely available, public sentiment may shift more toward changing the driving age. But for now, the focus should be on looking at other ways to enhance safety. We can put more emphasis on improved driving training and demand that teens follow the law when it comes to buckling up and turning their cell phones off. Parents can spend more hours on the road with their teen drivers, beyond the state recommendations, before sending them off on their own. Those are practical, proven ways to cut teen accident rates.