9/12/2008 20:47

Teenaged Drivers

The generally well-respected Insurance_Institute_of_Highway_Safety has now recommended that states raise the minimum age for issuing a driver's license to 18, or at least 17. Let me admit right away that I haven't read the IIHS research summaries, so I'm not offering comments on their research per se. But I do already have opinions on the policy direction.

My opinion is that we don't need any more categorical discrimination and status offenses in the United States. We already have plenty of agism around here, prejudices against both the too young and the too old. The old at least don't face laws which create crimes dependent simply on their age. The young do, however. That's the actual reality or a part of it.

What we may not have enough of is actual, rational discrimination. I mean decisions based on a discriminating evaluation of the competence of the individual to be a driver.

A person who has forgotten the rules of the road, or who knows them but fails to practice them, should not hold a license any more than someone who never learned the rules of the road in the first place.

A person who has lost the ability to see, or who doesn't have the strength to control a vehicle, or whose reaction time is not sufficiently rapid for safety, should not be driving.

Someone who habitually drives in a chemically impaired state should be taken off the road, and so should anyone who is medically impaired in such a way that their physical mental capacity has been lost or is not reliable.

Conversely, any person who knows and implements the rules, has the physical capabilities and does not impair them, should be allowed to drive. What does age have to do with any of these criteria?

Along those same lines, the AP article on the subject included the statement: "Karen Sternheimer, a university of Southern California sociologist who studies accident statistics, cited federal data from 2007 showing that drivers ages 25 to 34, as well as those ages 45 to 64, were nearly twice as likely to be involved in alcohol-related fatalities as 16- to 20-year-old drivers."

The problem with taking such an approach is obvious. Certainly it is more fair and almost as certainly it would improve safety on the highways more than would a blanket, age-based rule. But it would be harder to implement.

It is fairly easy to examine the year of a person's birth and rule them in or out of the privileged class on that basis alone. Many people who are not at all competent to drive (including people who are far too young to have developed the competence to drive an automobile) are perfectly capable of discriminating by year of birth.

There, it seems to me, we may find a criterion for rejecting the IIHS proposal. They propose that a potentenial driver's compentence can be evaluated by a person who is manifestly incompetent to perform the task of driving. On its face, such a proposal should be at least suspect if not immediately rejected. Fairness and equity demands that competence only be judged by someone who is herself competent.