New Drivers, New Rules, New Hope

This Wednesday is July 1, a melancholy anniversary: the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, and of the founding of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, in 1862. It would have been the 37th birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Otherwise, it is a day of little note or consequence--unless you are a California teen under the age of 18 whose wallet does not hold a driver's license or learner's permit.

Then it is a black-letter day, cataclysm, disaster, Dies Irae and a major drag.

For if, by midnight on June 30, such a teen does not have a driver's license, or at least a permit, the world will have turned upside down. Daddy in Sacramento will have taken the T-bird away.


The California legislature acted in its viewed-with-alarm mode when it decided last year that teenage drivers had been getting a little out of hand and were in need of training wheels--a little shirttail tug, a reminder that (all together now) driving is a privilege, not a right.

Certainly the numbers made their point: In 1995, drivers 15, 16 and 17 years old were five times likelier than an older driver to be at fault when someone was killed or hurt in a car crash. And somewhere in the backs of the legislators' minds must have been the wish-fulfillment of every parent to have something more solid underfoot than the quicksand logic of "because I say so" to stop the endless household yammering and importuning of a kid with the years, but not yet the smarts, to sit behind a steering wheel.

The Brady-Jared Teen Driver Safety Act, named for two kids killed in traffic smashups, undoubtedly sucks some of the sweet out of 16, that first birthday toward fully fledged emancipation--16, 18, 21, driving, voting, drinking. One person-one vote can't hold a candle to the allure of one person-one California driver's license.

Instead of a one-month wait between a learner's permit and the test for a real license, it will now be six months. Fifty hours of supervised instruction, 10 of them at night, will be required for a license (the driving schools are naturally thrilled about this one).

But the eye-rolling rule, the one that gets those "aw, no" diminuendo groans, is that even with a driver's license, new drivers under 18 cannot, for six months, go tooling around alone or with teenage friends or between midnight and 5 a.m.--unless Mom, Dad, guardian or certified driving instructor is along for the ride. (You can almost draw the voice balloon over their heads: Oh, sure, thanks a lot; why not just write Mother Teresa in there, too?) No solo dates, unless your date is a licensed driver over 25. No 3 a.m. pizza runs with the other kids. There are waivers for this, but trust me--they will be harder to get than visas to North Korea.


I was at Garfield High School earlier this year for the premiere of "Red Asphalt '98," a remake of the "Blood Highway" genre of driver's-education films that haunted my adolescence. (I didn't actually watch them; I listened, and only because I didn't have enough hands to put over my eyes and my ears at the same time. Everyone's favorite was the guy with the pole impaled through his neck.)

This film was way short on gore; real gore can no longer hold its own against movie gore, and what these kids haven't seen on TV or in the movies, they've seen for real, on the streets.

"Red Asphalt" instead told harrowing and sorrowing tales from brothers and sisters, parents and paramedics. It didn't seem to make much of an impression at Garfield.

So I turned to an expert, my niece, Anne, who is 15 going on 16 (at what age do we stop straining for the finish line of the next year?). Now hers is a sensible head as well as a pretty one, and she can argue herself into a corner over the maddening logic of this law.

"The part about not driving certain hours is fine with me, because my parents won't let me be out that late anyway. But the driving with friends--it seems pointless, because whether your friends are in the car or not doesn't affect your driving that much--whether you're going to get into an accident or not. But that could just be because I'd rather be with my friends in the car. And I guess they think you could get distracted, talking and stuff."

If she sounds more reasonable than your teenager, it may be because she's already got her learner's permit and thus has escaped the July 1 guillotine . . . but also because it was kids from her high school, 10 of them, who jammed into a Chevy Blazer late one night last year. The designated driver, who had gotten a speeding ticket 10 days before, took a curve at more than twice the speed limit. One boy died.

Already, she tells me, kids are complaining that the new law is not fair. It isn't. Neither are the genetic lottery, earthquakes, or getting older, but it's how the game is played. And lemme tell ya kid, when I was your age . . . .

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