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Mom, Dad? When can I start driving?

Should the minimum age for licensing teen drivers be fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, or even higher?  This issue has been debated for years by legislators and traffic safety professionals across the country.  It's important to recognize, however, that the question itself can mislead parents.

When state governments adopt teen driving laws they establish what is called a "bright line standard," meaning that whether or not the rule is good public policy, at least it is clear:  if the minimum age is sixteen, and your teen is fifteen years and 364 days old, she cannot get a learner's permit or a license, but if she is sixteen years and one day old, she can. Thus, when states set a minimum age, they establish a single rule for every teen and family.

Across most of the United States, state laws allow teens to obtain learner's permits when they turn fifteen or sixteen and a so-called restricted, provisional, or junior license a few months later.  However, asking what the statewide minimum should be is a deceiving question; the proper focus should be at what age your teen should be allowed to drive, regardless of what state law says.

Parents need to be aware that each state's minimum driving age is influenced by politics, tradition, culture, and simplicity.  But in no way are minimum driving age laws based on science or traffic safety data showing that most or some teens can safely drive at age sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen.  In fact, these ages are directly contrary to what science, crash data, and numerous teen driver studies now tell us

So, parents, do not be misled:  state law may say that your son or daughter is now old enough to drive, but in your judgment, is he or she ready to drive safely?  The factors to assess are:

  • appreciation of risk (is your teen a risk taker?);
  • emotional maturity (can your teen handle the stress of driving?);
  • physical maturity (is your teen coordinated enough to handle a car, strong enough to change a tire?); and
  • fear (will the dangers of driving overwhelm your teen's driver training?).

Every parent needs to make these evaluations.

In this calculation, the two factors that have no place whatsoever are the convenience of having another driver in the house, and pressure from peers – yours or your teen's.  Just because your state's teen driver laws allow your teen to obtain a license does not mean that the state has determined that that age is safe for most teens; it is up to you to be the extra filter in the process, to decide whether your teen is ready to learn to be, and become, a responsible driver.  Forget the legal age and focus on the age of responsibility. Your state may have a law, but you have a veto.

This guest post is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Tim Hollister's book, "Not So Fast:  Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving," published in 2013 by the Chicago Review Press.  All rights reserved.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility or any Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility member.*

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