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Our View: Delay in teens driving isn’t necessarily a bad trend

July 6, 2017 GMT

Statistically speaking, there’s no more dangerous place for a 16-year-old to be than behind the wheel of a car -- except perhaps in the passenger’s seat of a car being driven by another 16-year-old. In an average year, 30 Minnesotans between the ages of 16 and 19 die in car crashes.

That reason alone is justification for many families today to defy the tradition that when a teen turns 16, he or she should make a beeline for the DMV to get a driver’s license. According to a story in Monday’s Post Bulletin, nearly half of America’s teens are delaying licensure, with nearly 30 percent of high school seniors reporting that they don’t yet have a driver’s license.

We like this trend.

Just a generation ago, nearly every teenager took driver’s ed in high school and most received their driver’s license at age 16, but the world has changed considerably since then. Cars are much safer than they were 20 years ago, with sophisticated airbag systems and even collision-avoidance technology in some models But another piece of technology is wreaking all kinds of havoc -- the cellphone.

Nearly one-fourth of all crashes involving teen drivers are due to distracted driving, and although there are plenty of possible distractions out there, the cellphone is the biggest culprit. People of all ages are distracted by their phones.

It’s illegal for drivers under 18 to use a cellphone for any purpose, and texting while driving is illegal for all drivers, yet distracted driving is now the fourth leading cause of auto accidents in Minnesota.

We’d like to believe that young drivers are following the law and turning off their cellphones, but the evidence and anecdotal observations say otherwise.

Think about how you responded the last time you forgot to turn off your phone while driving. When you got a text, were you at least tempted to sneak a peak?

Now consider what we know about brain development in adolescents. Studies in the past decade have revealed that areas of the brain involved in rendering judgments and making decisions aren’t fully developed until age 25 -- which points to the likelihood that many cellphone-owning 16-year-olds simply aren’t mature enough to make always make the smart choice when they hear that “ding.”

So does that mean no one under 25 should be driving? Of course not -- but even a slight delay in getting a license will increase one’s odds of living to age 21. Nationwide, the rate of fatal crashes per mile driven for drivers 17 and under is nearly double the rate for drivers who are 18 or 19.

Of course, safety isn’t the only reason teens are delaying getting their licenses. The cost of insuring young drivers is prohibitive, with the average Minnesota family’s premiums going up 97 percent when a 16-year-old is added to the policy. That’s the eighth-highest premium hike in the country for teen drivers.

Social pressures have shifted as well. There was a day when a 16-year-old with no driver’s license would have been stigmatized, but today, not having a license is perfectly normal, especially in larger cities. Kids get rides with their older friends or from their parents -- or they (gasp!) ride a bike, catch a bus or call Uber, Lyft or another service.

Admittedly, there’s a downside to this trend -- at age 18, an aspiring new driver no longer has to complete a driver’s education course. The ability to pass a written exam and avoid disasters during the driving exam is no substitute for spending hours in the car with a professional instructor.

So perhaps a good route for concerned parents is to have teens get their learner’s permit at age 17, which means they’ll still have to take the 30 hours of classroom instruction as well as behind-the-wheel instruction before they get their provisional license.

The money they’ll save by not insuring a 16-year-old driver will more than pay for a driver’s education course, and waiting that extra year or two might just save lives.