Rethinking the Minimum Driving Age

It’s a rite of passage. Who doesn’t remember the anticipation and the satisfaction of getting your license for the first time? But, given what we know today about accident statistics, brain development and maturity, should we rethink the minimum age?

We took a poll, asking, “What do you think should be the minimum age to obtain a driver’s license?” As of June 8, 2012, nearly half of the people polled thought the age should be 18. 

How young are people driving in the U.S.?

In the vast majority of states, the minimum age for unsupervised driving is 16. The youngest legal drivers are in South Dakota at 14 years, 6 months. The oldest minimum age for driving is inNew Jersey at 17 years old. But, there are an increasing number of restrictions that vary by state for drivers under 18. Restrictions include night driving, the number of passengers allowed in the vehicle, mobile phone usage and more.

What do you think should be the minimum age to obtain a driver’s license? These were the results when 16,832 people were asked this question.

Accident stats examine under-18 driving records

Driving accidents are the leading cause of death for people under the age of 18. More than 4,000 teens die in car crashes every year. Teens crash four times more often than members of any other age group. Many people would consider these statistics enough reason to increase the driving age to 18. But, are these stats based upon inexperience or upon age? Interestingly enough, studies show New Jersey, which has a minimum driving age of 17, has a consistently lower number of teen driving fatalities.

How does the U.S. compare to the rest of the world?

The majority of the globe—including many countries in Europe, Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Central America, and the Middle East—sets the minimum unsupervised driving age at 18, with a handful of countries, such as the UK and Ireland, at 17.

So, can we learn anything from the teen accident statistics in countries with higher age requirements? According to the World Health Organization, across all age groups, the road road traffic deaths per 100,000 inhabitants of each country were as follows in 2006 and 2007:

  • Sweden: 5.2 (2007)
  • U.K.: 5.4 (2006)
  • Ireland: 8.5 (2006)
  • Germany: 6 (2007)
  • United States: 13.9 (2006)

Raising the minimum driving age poses inconvenience

As activities and work obligations increase, many parents state that they need the 16-year-old in their family to drive. Some argue that it is unfair to prohibit more responsible teenagers from driving. Even given the accident and fatality statistics, the point can be made that there are many fatalities in other age groups, as well.

Is the 16-year-old brain ready for driving?

Newer studies of the human brain have revealed that the prefrontal cortex is not fully “connected” until the mid-20s.  This is the part of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions. So the typical teenage lapses in judgment may have a physiological component. In addition, active hormones in a teenager’s brain limit the ability to control moods and increases desire for thrill-seeking behavior. So, when it comes to making critical decisions regarding risky driving situations, the teen brain may not make the same judgment calls as the over-25 brain.

Learning to drive is part of growing up. But finding the perfect minimum age for driving could be as complicated as the teenage personality itself.

So what do you think? Are American teens mature enough to drive?