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Yes, the minimum driving age should be raised

As we approach summer break when 16 year olds are eagerly taking Drivers Education classes and getting their permits, we must stop to ponder if 16 is indeed the appropriate minimum age to start driving. A vehicle, if not driven carefully, can become a weapon of mass destruction even with a small mistake by a distracted and inexperienced driver.

The statistics in our nation are sobering—according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 3,466 teenagers ages 13-19 died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009, 16-year-olds have higher crash rates than drivers of any other age, and vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death among 13-19 year-olds. Further, the National Highway Safety Administration says that teenage drivers and passengers are among those least likely to wear their seat belts and most likely to use their hand held cell phones while driving.

Besides having a proclivity for impulsive actions at this age, there is now medical research evidence that backs up the theory that a 16 year old is not ready to drive. Brain researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, have found that the “executive branch” of the brain—the area that is responsible for weighing the risks, make judgments and control impulsive behavior is not fully mature at age 16. Careless attitudes and rash emotions often drive teen decisions, says Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging in the child psychiatric unit at the National Institute of Mental Health, who  leads the study.

While it may be an inconvenience for parents to chauffeur their kids for an extra two years, I believe it is well worth the bother to mandate a higher minimum driving age. Efforts to do so have been unsuccessful as driver’s permits and associated laws are under the purview of individual states—some like Michigan and South Dakota have a minimum age of just 14 to get a learner’s permit while New Jersey has the highest at age 17.

Safety experts are unanimous that such a move will dramatically reduce teen fatalities. “The bottom line is that when we look at the research; raising the driving age saves lives,” says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

It is time for federal action to enforce a higher and standard minimum driving age across the nation. In 2011, the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act (also called the STANDUP Act) was introduced to do just that along with a three step graduated scheme with restrictions to drive lifted only at age 18. Unfortunately, the effort stalled and the bill is yet to be law.

Between having to drive your child an extra two years to the unthinkable calamity of an accident or fatality—the choice is clear and any thinking parent should gladly be willing to play chauffeur for an extra two years.

Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.

No, the minimum driving age should not be raised

As an immigrant to this country without prior driving experience I can still recall the independence and freedom that my first car gave me.  Grocery shopping, going to school and all the other routine activities that did not require herculean advance planning.  Having gone through that experience why would we now delay that feeling of independence and liberation for our teenagers today?

We should instead use this opportunity as a way to teach them responsibility and safety. Driving has become safer over the years.  According to the NHTSA the number of fatalities declined steadily from 43,510 to 32,885 from 2005 to 2010.  Similarly 16 and 17 year-old fatalities reduced from 881 to 408 during the same time period.  According to the Governors Highway Safety Association(GHSA), this is attributed to graduated licencing laws which allows young beginning drivers to obtain on-road driving experience in a manner that protects them while they are learning, keeping them out of higher risk situations until they are ready.  This data clearly suggests that sound policies can make a huge impact on teen safety.

Fatalities are tragic, especially teen fatalities. It is true that increasing the minimum driving age to 18 would eliminate fatalities among younger teens. But, as Alex Koroknay-Palicz of the National Youth Rights Association summarizes, “Studies show that it is inexperience, and not age, that causes accidents. Raising the driving age will just create inexperienced, accident-prone drivers at 18 instead of 16.”

Driving has a 37 times higher fatality rate per mile travelled compared to flying for instance.  And men are 77% more likely to cause accidents. Should we permit only women to drive, then or give up driving and take up flying? Certainly, safety laws need to be in place to reduce automobile fatalities such as seat belt laws and banning texting or talking on cell phones while driving.  However, the biggest bang for the buck comes from technology.  For example seat belts and airbags have been estimated to reduce the likelihood of fatalities in head-on collisions by 66% and there have been exciting developments in sensor and safety technologies in automobiles, too.  Side impact air bags, auto cruise control and self parking cars are some examples.

Google has been working on futuristic vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.   There are seven such cars in California which have already completed 140,000 miles with minimal human interference.  Such solutions will not only dramatically reduce accidents and fatalities but also create exciting economic opportunities.  So instead of taking away junior’s car keys lets invest in key life saving technologies.

Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.