Driving while young adult

When 16- and 17-year-olds get their first driver’s license, it comes with strings attached: For one year, they can’t drive unaccompanied at night or with passengers under 20 years old. The idea is to let them gain experience on the road while keeping them — and everyone else — as safe as possible.

This cautious approach seems to have made a difference. As provisional driver license programs for minors have swept the nation over the last 20 years, fewer teens have died in car accidents. Hooray!

Of course, there could be many reasons for the decline, given that the rate of deadly car accidents start dropping for drivers of all ages long before the shift to provisional licenses. (Between 1975 and 2015, the number of teenage drivers involved in a fatal crash dropped 64%.) But many researchers believe provisional licenses have played an important role.

So if the program has benefits for teens, why not expand it to all newly licensed drivers under age 21? That’s the reasoning behind AB 63, a proposed state law introduced by Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) and promoted by a group of well-meaning road and children’s safety organizations. After all, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds applying for their first driver’s licenses are just as inexperienced behind the wheel as 16-year-olds.

Nevertheless, we question the wisdom of simply expanding a program designed for kids before it’s been shown to be effective with young adults. Data from New Jersey, the only state now requiring provisional licenses for 18- to 20-year-olds, show a small improvement in injury crash rates for 18-year-old drivers, but virtually none for 19- and 20-year-olds. 

Besides, there are real, practical problems with treating young adults — many of whom have jobs, families and demanding schedules — the same way as minors. That’s why Frazier’s bill is filled with exemptions — for work, for health reasons, for class and school events, for military service, for family needs — to allow young adults to conduct their adult lives. But those carve-outs diminish the potential effectiveness of the proposed restrictions. 

Supporters say that new drivers simply don’t get the training they need to be trusted to drive without restriction. But if the current approach to training is insufficient, then a better approach would be to fix that. If a 20-year-old isn’t prepared to be safely behind the wheel, then she shouldn’t get a pass simply because she’s in the Army or working the night shift.

The upcoming hearings for this bill will be a good opportunity to explore how we can make the roads safer without making life unnecessarily harder for young adults.

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