It's not the age, but the education

As the Legislature was set to debate the bill to increase the driving age, Mrs. Boston Crazy Driving and I were reminiscing about our experiences in the driver's ed. car. We both grew up in the same town, but went to different high schools, and therefore different driver's ed. schools. (Actually, anyone interested in a sweet love story, my wife and I met in kindergarten and knew each other all through grade school, but never dated until after college.)

The bill to raise the driving age to 17.5 years old failed in the Legislature on June 1, and many hailed it as a boon for harried parents who long for their teens to reach the present legal driving age of 16.5 so they can stop ushering them from sports to job to the mall or movie theaters.

Even when the state tinkered with the junior operator rules eight years ago, I thought it was an unenforceable joke. The rule was teen's could still get their licenses at 16.5, but the only passengers they could have in the car would be licensed driver's or younger siblings. In other words, they weren't supposed to be packing the car full of friends. How many times have their been major accidents, reported in the news and not, where a driver younger than 17 breaks this rule? More than can be counted. In all honesty, few cops are going to see a young driver in a car full of other teens and pull it over just to ascertain if the driver is old enough to cart her friends around.

My wife and I agreed that the problem wasn't the driving age. We were both fairly responsible young drivers (I didn't get into my first fender bender or get my first ticket until I was at least 17). What was problematic was that the driver's ed. program was a big joke at the time. We were required to drive for six hours and observe other student drivers for six hours in the instructor's car, as well as have something like 12 or 15 classroom sessions. I remember my instructor had these bifold yellow cards with squares for each of these hours that he would initial as each hour was completed. The classroom sessions were stereotypical right down to the horrible 1970s scare-tatic movie that looked like a bad porno mined from the back of a friend's dad's closet. I think it was called something like "Blood Prom." Let's just say there was a lot of baby blue and peach taffita.

I have always heard stories about driver's ed. instructors giving away observation hours for various reasons. A friend once told me his instructor had to run errands during a driving lesson, and in exchange the instructor forked over all six observation hours. He was no worse for the wear, after all I always considered the observation hours a joke anyway, but once the observation hours become a convenient bribe or reward, what's next, driving hours, too? Miss a class, get a pass for picking up dry cleaning?

I don't know what the requirements are to become a driving instructor, but I bet it probably involves passing a test to become certified and maybe a driving record check. I doubt it's an exhaustive vetting process. Once licensed, I doubt there is much in the way of recertification or continuing education. There could be, but I didn't see even a link for certification on the RMV Web site, and wasn't able to find anything in the state Department of Professional Licensure or the Executive Office of Public Safety. Who regulates these people?

This, to me, is the weakness in the system. Are 16-year-olds prone to do stupid and daring things in cars? Yes. Are they more likely to do it with friends in the car? Yes. I know I did. My first car was a beat up 1982 Toyota Corolla hatchback with no keyholes in the doors (I had to climb in through the hatch whenever I locked my car because that was the only key lock that hadn't been removed in a botched break-in attempt on the previous owner), and I would deliberately crash the thing into snowbanks just because I could. I didn't do it at top speed; it was more like: jam on the breaks, slide on the snow, slush or ice on the road and come to rest in the snowbank. And you know what that taught me? How to handle a car in a skid. That's not something my driver's ed. instructor taught, but boy was I good at hill starts thanks to him.

That's the thing. We both joked at how much emphasis the instructor put on things like hill starts and backing up in a straight line. These are both good skills, but at least for me, these were taught as if they were the secrets to a good driving acumen. We were forced to practice these over and over until the instructor thought we had them down, but we were simply told to "turn into the skid." Try remembering that in a panic. So, while these simple basics should be part of the lessons, the instruction shouldn't end there.

Some will argue that the parents have a responsibility to also let their permitted driver's behind the wheel enough to get the hang of real time driving. I agree. Indeed, for his part, my driving instructor told us we needed at least 30 hours of driving outside of driver's ed. to really get the hang of it. We needed to learn how to drive in different conditions, rain, night, traffic, snow, etc. So often I hear people say they don't like various types of driving, or even that they fear it. Some have a rational fear of it. Others have a fear of inexperience. They dread driving in Boston, say, the way Luddites dread technology.

I was the type of driver who couldn't wait to get behind the wheel. I wanted to use the permit I earned with a 10-question computer test. I wanted to practice left turns, and to see what it was like to get a car up to cruising speed on a highway. My family, however, was more cautious. "You have an engine under you!" my grandmother would scream in fear as I hit 25 mph. "You can kill even at this speed!" All of my eagerness, however, translated into a lot of driving time by the time I was old enough to get my license. After six months of driving nearly every day, and in snow, rain and at night, I felt comfortable enough behind the wheel. I couldn't say the same for my friends. Some drove like Raymond Babbit: slow on the driveway, but only on Saturdays. Never on a Monday.

Luckily, none got into a major accident that killed or maimed them or anyone else. I'd say we all beat the odds, but the odds aren't against junior operators. They're against inexperience, and instead of raising the driving age, what the Legislature should be doing is improving the driver's education requirements.


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