posted by Vivian Hamilton
My previous post argues for raising the driving age, ideally to 18. Thank you to those who commented. You raise many good points, so I continue the conversation here. (And I must especially thank Prof. Cunningham for reading my article, and for his kind words.)
Treating Teens as Presumptively Delinquent? One comment suggests that raising the driving age treats young people as “presumptive law breakers.” I resist that characterization. Raising the driving age recognizes adolescent incapacity in this context and aims to protect adolescents, and those with whom they share the roadways, from the too-often tragic consequences of that incapacity. Such policy reform is consistent with the state’s obligations to its young people. I briefly discuss those general obligations, then return to the driving context specifically.
The State’s Obligations to Adolescents, Generally. The state should safeguard both the welfare interests and autonomy interests of the young. (I elaborate on this state obligation elsewhere, drawing on the work of my colleague James Dwyer and others.) Welfare interests pertain to young people’s well-being, irrespective of any affirmative choice they make. Autonomy interests refer to their interests in making self-determining choices and having the freedom to exercise the liberties of which they are capable. Compelling evidence suggests that driving is a liberty that adolescents do not have the capacity to exercise competently. The state thus fails to guard adolescents’ welfare interests — and protect them from their deficiencies — by extending them this liberty despite their incapacity.
Policymaking affecting adolescents in general poses a major challenge for lawmakers. Young people attain different capacities at different stages in their development, and development correlates predictably (though not perfectly) with age. Identifying and extending to adolescents liberties in contexts in which they have attained competence can be a challenge. Further complicating the state’s task is that, even where adolescents may have achieved the ability to perform competently, certain real-world contexts predictably confound their capacities and impede their performance. Thus by mid-adolescence, individuals have reached adult-like information-processing and logical reasoning abilities. But the quality of their decision making suffers in situations that require adolescents to quickly assess and react to risk, to reason while highly stressed or in the heat of passion, to make decisions in unfamiliar circumstances, or to act in the presence/under the pressure of peers. The neurobiological processes that support decision making under these conditions do not fully mature until late adolescence or early adulthood.
Prof. Cunningham’s analogy to rules that allow minors to disclaim contracts is a good example of a policy choice that may be at odds with what we now know about adolescent decision-making capacity. (I discuss adolescent contractual capacity briefly in another article (at pp. 1851-57, which argues against adolescent marriage.) By mid-adolescence, individuals have the cognitive capacity to understand the rights, duties, and responsibilities of a contract, and in light of that understanding, are able to make a voluntary choice to enter it or not. Absent the same factors that would invalidate a contract entered by an adult (duress, etc.), there is a strong argument that the adolescent should be held to his or her bargain. But contract policy might also permit minors to disclaim contracts entered in the sorts of contexts likely to compromise their decision making (e.g., the typically pressured context of buying a used car?).
Back to adolescent driving:
How Serious a Public Health Threat? One commenter (SgtDad) notes that traffic fatalities have declined in recent decades, making adolescent driving an “ever smaller problem,” with policy changes in turn having an “ever smaller effect.” To what extent does adolescent driving remain a true public health problem? An estimated 48 thousand 16- to 19-year-olds will die in car crashes
posted by Vivian Hamilton
Car crashes kill more teens each year than any other cause; and of the crashes in which they are involved, teens are overwhelmingly at fault. Decades of law-reform efforts have led to mandatory seatbelt laws, an increased legal drinking age, and graduated-licensing systems. Yet traffic fatalities still account for nearly 40% of all deaths of 16- to 19-year-olds. Driving, then, is arguably the greatest public health threat facing U.S. teens. (The next three leading causes of teen death — homicides, suicides, and cancer-related illness — trail only distantly.) While existing measures have had some positive effects, they insufficiently safeguard both young drivers and the public at large from young drivers’ immaturity and inexperience. A report of a National Academies interdisciplinary workshop, for example, concluded that “the sheer magnitude of the injuries and fatalities that continue to result from teen crashes shows that current prevention efforts are inadequate.”
Most of us know that teens crash at rates far higher than those of older drivers. Fewer may be aware that the younger the teen driver, the higher the risk — by far the highest crash rates are those of 16-year-olds (250% higher than those of 18-year-olds), followed by those of 17-year-olds (50% higher than those of 18-year-olds). Driving inexperience and developmental immaturity are the primary factors that contribute to adolescent crash risk. Driving inexperience, however, is not the primary cause of the higher crash risk of younger teens. At younger ages (15 to 17), driving inexperience is secondary to developmental immaturity; not until later ages do different levels of driving experience account for more of the differences in crash rates. Thus the crash risk for 15-year-old beginners is much higher than that for 17-year-old beginners, but the crash risk for 18-year-old beginners is only slightly higher than that for 20-year-old beginners. At each month of driving experience, young drivers crash at rates higher than those of older drivers with equal driving experience.
By ages 15 or 16, adolescents indeed have the cognitive ability required to learn traffic rules and basic driving skills. But the self-regulatory capacities and psychosocial maturity essential to competent and safe driving remain immature in adolescence (the developmental stage between childhood and adulthood, generally spanning ages 12 to 17), as observed in research of adolescent behavior generally and driving behavior specifically, and supported by research of the adolescent brain. When decision-making contexts involve stressors that require the exercise of psychosocial maturity/regulatory competence — requiring, for example, that a decision be made in an unfamiliar situation (such as the new perceptual situations involved in driving); under time pressure (such as the nearly-instantaneous reactions often required when reacting to driving hazards); in in the presence/under the influence of peers (including the direct or perceived influence of peer passengers); or in an emotionally-charged situation — adolescent decision making suffers. These characteristics all confound the execution of whatever nascent driving competence adolescents do possess.