Crash Test Dummies

A state law that was supposed to save teens from themselves backfires

Safer kids and highways must not be the goal of California's absurd new law to shackle teenage drivers. Even though Highway Patrol stats clearly show the law preceded a record jump in youthful highway deaths, its backers (with the help of the press) are casting it as the biggest kid-saver since Jonas Salk.

The Nov. 12, 1999, Los Angeles Times reported the new law cut injury and fatal crashes by drivers under age 18 by "12 to 20 percent."

Who says? Fervent champions of the law such as the Automobile Club of Southern California, which the Times commissioned to analyze statistics cited in the article and which called the numbers "wonderful."

Here's what really happened: teen accidents (particularly fatal ones) had been falling rapidly in the decade before the law. After the law took effect on July 1, 1998, teen accidents rose and fatalities skyrocketed, especially among the 16-year-olds it restricted the most.

How can the Automobile Club and other backers fob off this far-from-wonderfulness as success?

Simple. They (a) picked only numbers that suited their case, (b) ignored numbers that wrecked their case, (c) credited the law with crash declines among 17-year-olds the law didn't apply to, (d) ignored crash increases among 16-year-olds the law did apply to, (e) failed to mention the large increase in 16-year-old traffic deaths, and (f) compared incomplete data after the law passed with complete tabulations before.

What's the truth?

The new teen driving law banned those under 18 who applied for driver's licenses from adolescent normalities—like driving with teenage friends, driving late at night, or driving alone unless accompanied by a parent or a driver aged 25 or older—for most of their first year behind the wheel. Because nearly all 17-year-old drivers got licenses before the law took effect, its restrictions affected only 16-year-olds.

Were such stern curbs needed? No. Before the new law, teenage traffic-crash rates, injuries, deaths and drunken wrecks had been plummeting for two decades. In 1977, drivers under age 18 were in 451 fatal wrecks; in 1987, 320; in 1997, 187—60 percent fewer per driver than two decades ago. From 1990 through 1997 alone, 16-year-olds' injury crashes dropped 30 percent and fatal wrecks were down an amazing 40 percent.

Enter the late '90s reality-be-damned imperative to control kids en masse. The 1997 legislative hearings on the law were filled with screaming terror of rising hordes of blood-lusting high schoolers—drunk, crazed, revving to rip up the roads. The Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) conducted a series of "Youthquake" forums to warn that California's "alarming population trend" (adultspeak for "more teenagers") would boost murderous motorway carnage—even though OTS's own figures showed a quarter-million more 16- to 19-year-olds had 6,000 fewer serious wrecks in 1997 than in 1990.

As for its alarmism about more drunken driving, OTS has got to be joking. Forty-year-olds drunkenly kill and injure far more people than 17-year-olds do; in fact, 40-year-old men cause more besotted highway massacres than all teenage girls combined.

Note to self for future study: Why do we shell out money to keep traffic-accident stats if even officials don't bother to look at them?

And so the new brake-teens law. After it took effect in 1998, the long-term decline in injury crashes among 16-year-olds halted (they rose a modest 0.2 percent), and fatal crashes rose 38 percent —the largest death increase on record. Compared with the same months of the previous year, 16-year-olds' fatal crashes jumped 31 percent in the first six months and 52 percent in the second six months after the new law's advent. Contrary to experts' claims, then, teen crash rates were lowest when teens were allowed to drive alone or with friends, subject to their own and their parents' say-so. When the state dictated one-size-fits-all edicts, teen wrecks went up.

You'd think highway-safety folks who claim concern for saving kids' lives would be alarmed at what followed their new law, not fudging numbers to absolve it. True, many teenagers are lousy drivers until they get some practice. Studies show the best way to train them is to fund professional driving instructors for extensive on-the-road lessons. But that costs money. So the new law's cheapskate, second-rate solution was to deputize parents and/ or any driver over age 25 as a driving instructor for kids. That last stipulation is a preposterous one: California's over-25 drivers caused 1 million serious crashes during the 1990s, 40,000 of them fatal and 150,000 of them drunken. Since the best predictor of a reckless Junior is a leadfoot Dad, the law paired bad teachers with inapt pupils.

The stampede to youth curfews, restrictive driving laws and growing rosters of other measures to subject adolescence to constant adult surveillance has been justified as protecting youths from death and danger. But in the end, the police and "safety" groups pushing these mass controls don't seem nearly as concerned about safety as they do about control.

 
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