Change the Way We License Texas' Teen Drivers

By William J. Winslade

In many primitive tribes, children undergo initiation rites as they enter into adulthood. Some of these ceremonies are challenging, even gruesome. But once initiated, young adults achieve both independence and responsibility.

In America, getting a driver's license at age 16 or earlier symbolizes a modern rite of passage, often capped among the affluent with a gift of a car on a teen 's 16th birthday.

Being able to drive does give teens independence and mobility, but too often it also causes disaster rather than creating responsibility. Although teen drivers in the United States account for 7 percent of licensed drivers, they are involved in 14 percent of fatalities and 20 percent of reported accidents. These statistics, though alarming, should come as no surprise.

Teen drivers are inexperienced, often immature and sometimes reckless. Add to this the adolescent feeling of invulnerability - it can't happen to me - and you have a recipe for tragedy. Who doesn't recall reading in the daily paper about yet another fatal crash involving teens? Who hasn't witnessed, especially near high schools, impatient, dangerous and reckless drivers causing fender benders or near-misses?

Until recent years, despite extraordinarily high insurance rates for teen drivers, Americans have looked the other way, treating driving rites as if they were unalienable rights. Fortunately, the trend is changing. Despite the failure of proposed federal legislation in the mid-1990s to restrict and regulate high-risk teen drivers, many states have passed graduated driver licensing laws.

Texas is now considering such a law, and it is high time that we pass it. Texas Senate Bill 280, sponsored by state Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, requires 16-to-18-year-old drivers to hold an intermediate license or a hardship license for six months prior to obtaining full licensure. A holder of an intermediate license would not be permitted to operate a motor vehicle alone after 11 p.m. or before 5 a.m. except to get to and from a job. A teen driver would be permitted to drive during those hours only if accompanied by a licensed driver over 21.

Furthermore, a teen driver would not be allowed to obtain full licensure without a clean driving record; that is, no convictions for traffic offenses during the six-month intermediate license period or the one-year period preceding application for an intermediate license. Teen drivers and their passengers would be required to wear seat belts.

These modest regulations may seem unduly restrictive to some teenagers, but many parents and other drivers would breathe a sigh of relief.

Graduated licensing is a small step in the right direction. This proposed law recognizes that driving a car is a serious social responsibility; the evidence is overwhelming that teen drivers are dangerous to themselves and others.

The proposed regulation restricts those who violate driving laws and rewards those who abide by them. It treats driving as a privilege to be earned and as a responsibility to be maintained. Bivins' bill places reasonable restrictions on intermediate drivers at times they are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors.

If passed into law by the Texas Legislature, this would encourage teens to take driving more seriously, to learn to drive better and to gain necessary driving experience. If it doesn't, greater regulation may be needed. Moreover, we also desperately need better driving classes that teach inexperienced drivers how to deal with stress, emergencies, their own attitudes and difficult highway situations. Current driver's-training and defensive-driving classes rarely rise to the level of good practical education.

Such a law may help in a small way to reduce the deaths and traumatic brain injuries that result from vehicular crashes. With traumatic brain injury as the largest cause of death and disability among teens, and car crashes accounting for most of them, this is the least we can do to preserve our most valuable natural resource: our children's brains.

This story first appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 4, 1999.