On July 23, 2012, a 16-year-old driver and her 17-year-old passenger were involved in a fatal accident along Route 23 in West Milford, New Jersey. The driver, who only had a learner’s permit, was driving on the wrong side of the highway. The accident fatally injured six people, including the 18-year-old driver of the other vehicle; the passenger in the vehicle traveling the wrong way eventually died from her injuries.
Accidents like these shed some negative light on New Jersey’s low driving age. The fact that the young driver was driving in the wrong lane denotes a clear unfamiliarity with driving practices. New Jersey’s current regulation on the minimum age to obtain a learner’s permit is lower in comparison with other states and with other industrialized nations. New Jersey teens can obtain a learner’s permit at just 16 years of age, which allows them to drive with the supervision of a parent or guardian and prohibits driving between 11:00 p.m and 5:00 a.m. Yet after just six months of supervised driving, young drivers can move on to obtaining probationary licenses, which removes driving time restrictions, and complete their provisional period to obtain a full license at 18 years old.
16 years old may not seem too far away from 17 and 18—in fact, a 16-year-old is likely to be just as mature as an 18-year-old. However, 16-year-olds have crash rates that are three times higher than those of 17-year-olds and five times higher than those of 18-year-olds. Why the disparity? The prefrontal cortex, a portion of the brain’s frontal lobe that is responsible for skills such as decision-making and understanding future consequences, does not fully develop until a person has reached their mid to late twenties. Even at 17, this portion of the brain is at a much higher level of development than it is at just a year younger, correlating to the dramatic uptick in driving-related deaths between 16 and 17-year-olds.
Teen drivers are increasingly likely to drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or to participate in distracting activities while driving, including texting and talking on the phone. Among male drivers between 15 and 20 years of age who were involved in fatal crashes in 2012, 37 percent were speeding at the time of the crash and 25 percent had been drinking, according to a survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Enforcement of safety precautions is also lackluster among young high school students. According to a study conducted by the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System in 2013, only 55 percent of high school students reported that they always wear seat belts when riding with another person.
It’s clear that handing over the keys to a high school student who has never driven before thrusts the huge responsibility of driving onto the shoulders of a teen, who may not be mentally or emotionally ready for such a task. Rather, young teens and novice drivers should be learning to drive through carefully supervised programs that gradually give them greater freedom as they grow more mature, becoming more skilled and confident behind the wheel.
In fact, such an act was introduced in 2011 in Congress. The Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, or STANDUP Act, was proposed with the intention of “establishing minimum federal requirements for state graduated driver’s license (GDL) laws and encouraging all states to adopt GDL laws that meet those minimum requirements within 3 years,” according to the Saferoads4teens Coalition. This legislature would delay the age of obtaining a permit by six months or by over six months in 34 states nationwide. Delayed licensure gives teen brains time to develop and grow in maturity, thus reducing the number of accidents.
This lax enforcement of safety measures, combined with the increased likelihood of driving under the influence and taking greater risks, leads to the thousands of crashes that happen in New Jersey every year—47,960 in 2009 involving drivers between ages 16 and 20. While only a fraction of those accidents ended up being fatal, the possibility of fatalities continues to trouble friends and family of young drivers. With that potential comes the anguish that teen drivers may have their lives snuffed out in a single second—a threatening situation that may become a reality as long as unprepared drivers are on the road.