Thursday, August 18, 2016

What Should The Driving Age Be?

One thing that Twenty-One Debunked has been slacking on lately is the other main age limit in the drinking/driving equation--the driving age.  While we have not always been very clear on that particular issue and generally left it on the back burner, it merits attention nonetheless.

There is indeed an interesting paradox compared with the drinking age.  With the notable exceptions of Canada (driving age 14, 15, or 16 depending on province), Australia (16 1/2 in one state, 17 or 18 in the rest), and New Zealand (16), every other industrialized (and semi-industrialized) nation on Earth has a driver license age of 17 or higher, and most are 18.  Yet these countries all have drinking ages lower than the USA, and nearly all of them are 18 or lower.  Many are as low as 16 (though a few European nations have recently raised the drinking age to 18). And most of these countries have far lower rates of traffic deaths, alcohol-related or otherwise, than the USA.

On the surface, that strongly recommends in favor of raising the driving age in conjunction with lowering the drinking age, particularly setting the driving age higher than the drinking age instead of the other way around.  At one time, the founder of Twenty-One Debunked advocated doing exactly that.  But such an approach glosses over some serious issues involving the car culture of the USA.  First, with our inferior public transportation infrastructure, we cannot compare the situation here to Europe.  Canada or Australia would be a much better comparison.  Secondly, the odds of us ever lowering the drinking age below 18 are slim to none, and we no longer consider such a goal worthwhile.  But most importantly, the evidence that a much higher driving age would make roads any safer is questionable at best.

Renowned sociologist and youth-rights activist Mike Males did a famous study in 2006 that found that California's tough new graduated driver license (GDL) law implemented in 1996 did reduce traffic deaths among 16-17 year olds--but also increased traffic deaths for 18-19 year olds enough to more than offset the apparent lifesaving effect among younger drivers.  In other words, it merely delayed such deaths, or worse, led to a net increase.  He also found in another study that much of the increased risk among younger drivers is actually the result of poverty, not "immaturity" or "underdeveloped brains".  The rest can largely be chalked up to inexperience, and the difference between genders (males being worse) dwarfs any unaccounted for age difference.  While his research was seen as controversial among the establishment and many disputed it, it nonetheless pans out rather well.  A 2011 national study by Masten et al. confirms Mike Males' general findings: after adjusting for potential confounders, stronger GDL laws (compared with weaker ones) were associated with lower fatalities for 16 year olds but higher fatalities for 18 year olds (and possibly 19 year olds as well), and the net effect for 16-19 year olds as a whole was not significantly different from the null.  In other words, it was a wash overall.

Of course, it is true that 16 year old first-year drivers do have significantly higher fatal crash risks that 17 year old first-year drivers--though 17 year old novices are apparently no worse than 18 or 19 year old novices.  (There are apparently not enough first-year drivers 20 and older to make a valid comparison for them, but I imagine it would be similar.)  Thus, it is possible that raising the driving age to 17 would in fact result in a net reduction in traffic deaths over the lifecycle compared with the status quo, while raising it to 18 or higher would likely only delay deaths compared with a driving age of 17.  New Jersey, for example, has a driving age of 16 for permit and 17 for license--the highest in the nation besides NYC with a de facto age of 18--and their teen traffic death rates are, contrary to stereotypes, lower than neighboring states (interestingly even before their GDL law was implemented, and declined further after that).  Compared with Connecticut, New Jersey's fatality rate was much lower for 16 year olds, slightly higher for 17 year olds, and slightly lower for 18 year olds, so the net effect was death reduction.  So being a year behind may not necessarily negate the benefits of delaying entry to licensed driving--though raising the age any higher than that might. 

So what should the driving age be in the USA?  The optimal age may in fact vary depending on how rural or urban a state or region is, but we do not believe it should be any higher than 16 for permit and 17 for license.  And of course we believe that the drinking age should be 18.  Additionally, we should definitely make the road test tougher like it is in other countries, and improve our driver education courses as well.  Raising the alcohol taxes and the gas tax would likely save many lives as well.  But on balance, raising the driving age any higher than 17 in this country would likely do more harm than good. And while GDLs in general are likely beneficial on balance, there is likely such a thing as too strict--particularly when it only targets drivers below a certain age (as opposed to all new drivers like in many other countries like Canada), and such a poorly designed one can actually backfire.

1 comment:

  1. The age to obtain a driver's license should be 16-17 and the age to obtain a learner's permit should be 15-16. Older ages outlined here would work better for states with good public transportation system while the younger age would be better for states without reliable transportation systems. A minimum age of 18 to obtain a driver's license is too high so 16-17 would be effective.