News and Events

September 10, 2008 - Is Shifting Driving Age A Fine Idea?

By KEITH MORELLI and NEIL JOHNSON

The Tampa Tribune

Published: September 10, 2008

TAMPA - Driving solo for the first time ranks high on the list of teen milestones, right up there with graduation, a prom or even the first kiss.

A study released Tuesday, however, makes a case for delaying that thrill in the name of safety.

The research compares New Jersey, where you have to be 17 to drive alone, with Connecticut, where the age is 16, and concludes that the highway death rate for drivers 16 and 17 is much lower in New Jersey.

"Immaturity and inexperience both contribute to crashes. It's hard to untangle the two," said Anne Fleming, spokeswoman for the industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which presented the study to state transportation officials at a meeting in Arizona.

Tampa police see the benefits of older young drivers, spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

"Raising the driving age will save lives," she said. "A more mature person behind the wheel would make better decisions."
In the view of others familiar with the issue, though, safety may be less a factor of age than of quality education and time behind the wheel.

They include Florida's AAA; state Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who sponsored mandatory driver's ed legislation; Bruce Murakami, who has campaigned for safe driving after a teenage driver killed his wife and son in Tampa; and just about every teen you talk to.

"I'm counting the days," said Sarah Varner, a sophomore at Hillsborough High School. "Three months and two days until my birthday. ... Teens are itching to drive and be independent."

Widely Differing Rates

Only New Jersey holds off on licensing teens until age 17. Most states, including Florida, issue licenses at 16. The new study found a fatality rate among 16-year-old drivers of 4.4 per 100,000 in New Jersey, compared with 20.7 per 100,000 in neighboring Connecticut.

The comparisons don't reflect the benefits of graduated licensing, which sets restrictions on young drivers, because the study years of 1992 to 1996 were before these systems were adopted in the two states. Florida was the first state with a graduated system.

"Raising the age from 16 to 17 saves lives in crashes," said Fleming, of the insurance institute. "Raising it to 18 saves even more lives."

Illinois considered raising the driving age to 18. Florida lawmakers have talked about 17, but the idea never progressed.

State Rep. Kevin Ambler, a Lutz Republican, sponsored a bill this year to require driver's education for all drivers 16 and 17, but the bill died after passing in two committees. Crist pushed a similar bill in the Senate with similar results.

Crist is not convinced that raising the driving age will lead to better drivers. The key is experience, he said. A 16-year-old who has gone through driver's education and has driven for a year on a permit may be a better driver than a 19-year-old, he said.

"The difference is not the age, it's the experience," Crist said.
Murakami, who travels to the nation's high schools preaching driving safety, said age doesn't really matter.

"I'm pretty neutral on it," said Murakami, who appears with teenagers convicted of driving offenses. "Most problems are from lack of experience and distraction."

That doesn't mean high school driver's education classes are the answer, he said. Many are dated and inadequate, he said, in part because of school budget cuts.

"I'm an advocate for advanced driving schools working with teens," Murakami said.

One in Tampa meets twice a month and teaches teens how to deal with issues relevant today, he said, such as the distractions of text messaging, young children in the car and playing with the stereo.

"The No. 1 issue is that teens don't get proper training," Murakami said.

Florida's Restrictions

Florida established a graduated driver licensing program 12 years ago to gradually acquaint teens with driving, in part by restricting them to operating a vehicle only during the day and limiting the number of passengers.

An evaluation of Florida's program between 1996 and 2002 showed a 9 percent reduction in fatal crashes among drivers ages 15 to 17, said the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The graduated program works just fine, said Kevin Bakewell, senior vice president of AAA Auto Club South. "We are not in favor of just raising the driving age."

He added, "You could, say, raise the age to 25, and wait until people are totally mature."

Raising the driving age means teens would have to wait longer to run errands, drive themselves to work and satisfy their taste for independence.

"There are definite trade-offs," Fleming said. "But it comes down to trade-offs of convenience and teenage eagerness for independence. ... It's a trade-off that would save lives."

Teens interviewed in Tampa on Tuesday said they understand the logic of raising the driving age, even if they are divided on whether to follow it.

"I would hate it but I would understand. I'm looking forward to driving big-time," said Nicci Showalter, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bloomingdale High School.

Waiting an extra year would disappoint Bloomingdale sophomore Alexis Davidson, 15, who has "been waiting forever to drive." Her mother has been waiting, too, so she can quit ferrying the teen around.

Chantell Albert, a 17-year-old senior at Hillsborough High, has her license and thinks it's a good idea to raise the driving age.
"I think it's better to raise it to 17, maybe raise it to 18," Albert said.

Younger drivers don't have the savvy to navigate the crowded city streets of Tampa, she said, and "some are not mature enough to handle being behind the wheel of a car."
Jason Holleran, 16, just got his license, but still favors raising the minimum age.

"It's cool that I get to drive," said Holleran, a junior at Hillsborough High. "But I think that driving at 16 is really young. I know a bunch of people who have gotten into accidents."

Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760 or kmorelli@tampatrib.com.

Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at (813) 259-7713 or njohnson@tampatrib.com.