Friday, March 31, 2006

Driving No Where

Massachusetts has tough regulations for young drivers. People have to be 16 and a half before they can get their license. They have to go through a driver's education class, including time spent behind the wheel taking formal lessons. New drivers must wait six months before they can drive their friends. Apparently, many don't think that's good enough.

According to the Boston Globe, the state wants to make extreme new changes to the system:

  • Raise the minimum age for junior operator's licenses to 17 1/2 and learner's
    permits to 16 1/2.
  • Extend the duration of learner's permits, when teenagers must be accompanied by a licensed driver who is at least 21, from six months to 1 year.
  • Allow the Registry of Motor Vehicles to overhaul driver's education
    courses around the state.
  • Require 50 hours of supervised driving for learner's permit holders, up from 12 hours.
  • Toughen penalties for junior operator's license violations such as driving after midnight or driving with minors as passengers when not accompanied by an adult.
  • Prohibit those with learner's permits and junior operator's licenses from using cellphones while driving.
  • Impose a one-year license suspension for minors caught drag racing.

Perhaps I'm biased. At almost 22, I'm only five or six years removed from getting a license. However, I think this plan is extraneous and ineffective. Many politicians and others probably figure getting a license represents all fun and games to teenagers. However, nothing could be further from the truth. An extra driver in the family can be a boon. Are parents going to be expected to cart their children around until they're legally adults?

Teenagers have jobs, extracurricular activities and schools to attend, parents don't always have the time or desire to bring them there. More than that, the ability to drive provides an important freedom to teenagers that extends beyond the fun and games and represents an important step toward adulthood. When I first got my license, it gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my family, which was divided from a divorce. Where once I was only able to visit my father's side on weekends, with a license I was able to have dinner on a Thursday or take my little brother and sister out for some after-school fun. I could never adequately describe how much I cherished that newfound interaction I could have with my own flesh and blood. Clearly, increasing the age before people are able to get a license represents real hardships for families as well as teenagers who deserve a chance to grow into adulthood.

Worst of all, the effectiveness of this new plan can be debated: the State House can do better. Improved driving regulations are essential, but this new proposal fails miserably. The current proposals effect all teenagers: good drivers and bad. At almost 22, I've never been in an accident. I've never had a speeding ticket. By all accounts, I'm a pretty good driver and was from the start. Would it have been fair to strip away my access to my family or force my mother to take time from work to ship me around on errands - when I proved I was a safe and competent driver?

Why would voters expect a 17 1/2 year old to be a better driver than someone who's 16 1/2? What's the difference in a year? If Massachusetts wants teenagers to excel behind the wheel, the state should focus on setting policy that will actually work: more difficult testing. There were dozens of people in my graduating class who passed their driving test by merely taking a spin around the block. Many didn't even have to do a three-point turn or parallel park. Driving exams tend to be quick - just two or three minutes - and can't adequately gauge driving ability. Creating a more difficult and strenuous test would force all drivers to be fully competent before passing.

Despite my criticism, the current proposal does have a few good ideas. Most importantly, it's clear the state feels current Drivers' Education courses aren't difficult enough. Increasing the amount of hours spent behind the wheel will undoubtedly create better drivers. However, Massachusetts must be wary: current driving courses already cost hundreds of dollars, this proposal will likely more than double the cost. While I could condemn such prohibitive costs based on elitism alone, there are far greater problems: if people can't afford driving lessons, they'll wait until they are 18 before they get their license. By waiting until a driver is 18, he or she is able to skip many of the regulations affecting younger drivers - including the policy on driving lessons .

Voters should ask themselves this: Who would you rather have behind the wheel? A 16 and a half year old who has taken formal lessons or someone who's 18 and has had none? Let's increase the amount of time spent behind the wheel at Drivers' Ed, but investigate the costs of such an increase compared to the benifits so we can arrive at a fair number. Driving may be a privilege, but it shouldn't be a privilege only extended to the wealthy.

1 comment:

joe schlieff said...

I agree 100%. I'm 19, and I haven't even been pulled over yet. I haaave had a cop come to my house and yell at me over something I did on the road, but no ticket (cue funny story).

All the times I've had a problem on the road, it was because someone far older than myself was doing something moronic behind the wheel. If these regulations pass, why not start restricting grown adults?

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