- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

The days when teen-agers were satisfied with a set of wheels like the Model A my sister and I were pleased to own are long gone. It was the world’s first psychedelic painted ride and we felt blessed for its 45 to 50 miles an hour top speed. So did all our less fortunate friends who climbed aboard whenever they had the chance, never really fearing there was any danger being in what we affectionately called “the Jalopy.”

But speed is today’s byword and it seems to increase with each passing year. The marketers tout speed as the most salable commodity, whether measuring the response time of a computer or an automobile. Zero to 60 in five or six seconds is not only the dream of every boy but also most of the girls, though accidents involving sons still outnumber those of daughters by 2 to 1.

The result, at least as it pertains to cars, is mounting insurance costs for parents who have to pay premiums to insure youngsters whose poor judgment is borne out by statistics that wholly justify the increases. At one time, the cost of insurance went up only for sons. But anyone who has looked up recently to find a gum chewing teeny bopper with a telephone stuck in her ear whizzing by understands why daughters are no longer exempted from the higher rates.

But parents should take heart. A recent study commissioned from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration discovered that in states that have adopted laws that basically phase in teenage driving permits there has been a sharp drop off of fatalities. The reduction, in fact, is a startling 20 percent.

The restrictions are simple. They include one or more of the following: a minimum age of 15 years before obtaining a beginner’s permit; a waiting period after receiving the learner’s permit of at least three months before applying for an intermediate license; a minimum 30 hours of supervised driving; a minimum age of 16 before one can receive the intermediate license, and a minimum age of 17 before one can be fully licensed; a nighttime driving restriction, and a restriction on carrying passengers during the phase-in period.

In those states where at least one of the restrictions has been adopted, the percentage of 16-year-olds involved in fatal crashes as compared to those who have none declined 4 percent. Five restrictions lowered the rate 18 percent and six or seven brought the fatality down 21 percent. The study makes it abundantly clear that where states have not instituted gradual driving permission, parents should pressure the legislatures to do so.

Here are some figures that should frighten any parent or grandparent. When fatality rates are broken down by age, the rate for the youngest drivers is nearly 35 per 100,000. This compares to 10 per 100,000 for drivers from age 35 to 74. With a chance to lower that significantly, how can states pass it up? But some do on the grounds it is difficult to enforce and mainly requires police to pull over drivers to check their age and driving status. Well, perhaps more traffic control, particularly in urban areas, just might be the ticket.

Even with the restrictions, parents must realize they need to take an active role in when and how their children may drive from the beginning of restricted licensing through unconditional licensing. In some states, the privilege of driving is tied to other conditions, including education. Indiana has taken steps to halt a severe high school dropout rate by increasing the licensing age to 18 for those who quit school before completing their courses. It has cut dropouts and improved driving records.

When it comes to irresponsibility, a major culprit in the entire teenage driving picture has to be those marketers who sell their autos on the basis of how many other cars they can outperform. One company even promotes sales by showing how well its car takes a crash. The message probably has several interpretations, but one certainly seems to be not to worry about your speed when you’re driving that vehicle; you will be safe. Right.

So what ever happened to the Jalopy? For years it sat forlornly in the garage until the folks sold it.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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