Teens don’t really vote, so why should anyone care about what they think of the new teen driver law coming to New York?
Sure, teenagers are old enough to go wield a weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are old enough to be permitted to choose whether to go to college or which college to go to (decisions that will impact many lives in huge ways over the course of their lifetimes), they are old enough to choose their own sexual partners (which by the way probably leads to more disease and poor outcomes than almost anything else teens do), they are old enough to work in paid employment, they are old enough to be placed in jail for making bad decisions, but now the good servants in our state legislature are making sure that:
The rules are changing for teenage drivers in New York, who will have to undergo more training before they can get their driver’s licenses and follow more restrictive rules while behind the wheel.
Under the new law, teens younger than 18 are required to hold a learner’s permit for six months before they can schedule a road test to get a license. The law also increases the number of training hours from 20 to 50, with at least 15 hours of night-time driving; reduces the number of non-family passengers younger than 21 allowed in the vehicle from two to one; and bans teens from using any portable electronic devices, handheld or not.
The reason for this sounds reasonable. Teens are 4 times more likely to get in fatal accidents than adults:
The administration also reported 2,739 drivers ages 15 to 20 were killed in crashes in 2008, and more than 220,000 drivers in that age group were injured in crashes.
What aren’t the paternalists telling us?
- Fatality rates in automobiles have been falling almost monotonically for 15 years. In 1994, there were1.73 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That rate has fallen every year (but one) since 1994 down to 1.27 deaths per million vehicle miles traveled. That is a reduction in fatality rates of 26.5%. And I suspect that these decreases have occurred for all age classes. The improvement in safety has had little to do with government regulations on what “high risk” drivers can and cannot do. Of course, this raises the question as to why right now do we need these changes in the law? Where were these proposals 10 years ago or 20 years ago, when the problem was clearly worse?
- Decreases in fatality rates have occurred for all classes of vehicles except motorcycles. Now the effect of the new law might be small, but it is entirely possible that not being able to car pool or having to go through lots of extra driver training (which is costly) will push some teens into driving single passenger cycles. They are much more dangerous. Their fatality rates have increased by 70 percent over the same time period. This is not unheard of – I have a handful of students that commute to class via motorcycle already.
- What about crashes and fatalities caused by old people? Well, more old people die in cars than teenagers. In 2008, 4147 people aged 16-20 died in a car accident while 4,618 people aged 65+ died in car accidents. If auto safety were truly an issue, how come there are not stricter licensing requirements for the elderly than for the young. Young people may be more distractable, but their reflexes are quicker and they are more aware of their surroundings – the same cannot be said for more of the elderly. Anyone who has been cut off by an old lady going 43 MPH on a 65 MPH highway know exactly what I am talking about. I can’t find NHTSA data on miles driven by age, so I cannot compute the rates myself at the moment, but I suspect we’d see a U-shaped pattern in accident and death rates. Why only focus on the left-upright of that goalpost? Oh yeah, I know – teens really don’t vote as much as their more senior counterparts.
- Again I don’t have the rates, but in addition to the large majority of accidents and fatalities being caused by men, I recall seeing that accident and death rates are higher for men. Why should these restrictions apply evenly to men and women? Or maybe we should ban driving by teenage men and only allow women to drive?
There’s lots more to say of course. If the justification for doing this is that we wish to avoid distractions for teen drivers, who are more easily distracted, there are a whole host of other things we can do – why stop at banning iPods? I once got into an accident for daydreaming about my girlfriend. Maybe a little hormone therapy would have prevented me from being distracted? I can imagine a day where the safety police (not to be confused with the not-so-funny green police from the Audi commercial) put all drivers in these Harrison Bergeron -like apparati so that any time a nominally distracting thought comes into the head of a teen, they get a zap or a zing.
And I am sure no one stands to benefit from increasing the mandated supervised hours from 20 to 50. I bet drivers’ ed programs and the high schools that benefit from offering them had nothing at all to do with this. I am also sure that the decaying and failing public transportation sector and their associated transit union members do not stand to gain at all from policies that increase the relative cost of using non-public means of transportation.
And of course, parents have no incentive to protect their kids – I am sure when my two kids grow up and reach driving age I will show them how to drive while playing their guitars and texting their friends all at the same time. I will never be able to monitor what they do when they are not around me, but setting a good example and having your children understand just how dangerous cars are sure goes a long way. It seems to me that experience and example is as useful as any formal drivers’ ed course (and I took an awful drivers’ ed course where I spent far more time looking at a chalk-board and sitting in a passenger seat than I did behind the wheel learning how to drive). Or maybe to put it another way – a good handful of my students spent 12 years in the best schools in America before coming to U of R yet many of them cannot write worth a lick, and start getting the sweats if I so much as think about doing more than simple addition on the board in class. But magically, students will become better drivers just by increasing the time they spend in drivers’ ed by 150%.
And aside from the extreme paternalism of measures like this – the typical “one-size-fits-all” government policy screws people that were doing the right things all along. That is an outrage, no less so than the bailouts, and public welfare programs of all sorts, are outrages. What of the well-behaved, undistracted teenagers? What about the teenagers that saved money by carpooling to school or work (how’s this for an anti-green policy, huh?). Nah, who cares about them?
I am actually happy that this law is passing. One reason is that is will show my own children the difference between law and legislation. If my children are well behaved and disciplined, I will encourage them to break it. I forget who said it first, but as a parent, I am not raising my children to obey the legislation that immoral and amoral paternalists pass and inflict on my family. I will teach them to learn what the accepted laws and norms of society are, and then to obey those. So if my kids are focused, and respect what a car means, then they can have their iPod playing. What else would I do – rip out the car radio?
Second, I like this as a lesson for my current students and current teenagers who are not my students. No lecture from me, no exam question, no pleading for ethical and moral foundations in our society, will do a darn thing to teach many students about the horrors of galloping government intervention. But one thing I do know is that even my most statist of students values their own personal freedom. They have a hard time making connections between things like government subsidized health insurance and what happens in their personal lives. They like to think that simple government nudges (like perhaps a fat tax) are mere “small things” … and maybe they are.
Perhaps a few more rules like this one will wake the teens up to the horrors inflicted upon people by governments in the name of human betterment. In fact, maybe I should go to my legislators and recommend that they pass more stringent laws on the dating and sexual activities of teenagers. After all, they engage in the most risky kinds of things (certainly more than older people) and teens are too stupid to know all the consequences of the decisions they make, and since “society” is responsible for teen behavior (especially after we get national health insurance) in terms of paying for medical bills, for child-care expenses from unwanted children, etc. then it is “right” for “society” to pass laws and enforce them in order to reduce the risky sexual activities of teens. Who agrees that this is a good idea?
Perhaps I am over-reacting to this driver safety law. Perhaps. But I do not think so.