Getting Risky Teens Off Our Highway

America’s young drivers are a problem as old as the Christmas gift of a new La Salle given to an entitled tyke in Appointment in Samarra. “The kids knew he was going to get it all along,” John O’Hara wrote. “His mother told him beforehand. He smashed it up New Year’s Eve.”

A third of teenage deaths involve driving accidents—teen drivers are three times as likely as older ones to die in a crash. As other traffic deaths fell between 1993 and 2003, deaths involving Americans from 15 to 20 years of age rose by 5 percent, to 7,884 driving fatalities in 2003.

One reason for the increase is the ongoing effects of the tax revolt inspired by Proposition 13. Just as schools cut gym classes when their funds were slashed, leading to the soaring rate of teen obesity, driver-education courses at 80 percent of our schools were cut. The courses that survive in, for example, Washington, D.C., “don’t teach you how to drive as much as how to pass the driving test,” according to one expert.

But the main problem is far too many young drivers, especially males. “Boys have a lot of testosterone and a penchant for risk-taking,” notes a staffer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. On top of high spirits, inexperience means overdriving on curves and an unawareness of how prone S.U.V.’s are to rollovers.

Then there are the other teens in the car. “The risk of a fatal crash is directly related to the number of teens in the vehicle,” notes Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A driving instructor in New Jersey laments the “distractions” and “socializing” that take place inside cars jammed with teens.

Concern over these appalling statistics is growing. A popular reform is the graduated driver’s license, in which 16-year-olds who pass driving tests get a permit requiring an adult passenger in the car. They get a full license after a year of safe driving. Many graduated licenses also restrict teen passengers and night driving, especially on weekends.

The results of these reforms have been encouraging: Fatal crashes by 16-year-old drivers fell by 26 percent between 1993 and 2003. More than half of the nation’s 16- and 17-year-olds had licenses a few years ago. Now, 42 percent do.

Still, that means 42 percent of a crash-prone group has a license. How crash-prone? Recent studies have shown that the risk-inhibiting areas of the brain are not fully formed until people are about 25.

“The more I read about the current statistics in teenage driving, the more things need to change,” says Dr. Arturo Betancourt. “We don’t let kids drink until they’re 21, but we put them in killing machines before they’re really able [to handle driving].” Dr. Betancourt’s daughter, Alicia, died last year when a young friend lost control of his car and spun into a lamppost. She was 16, and one of 15 children killed in nine crashes in a single month last fall in the Washington, D.C., area. Three of the nine crashes involved 16-year-old drivers; four had 17-year-olds at the wheel. All but one driver was male.

Such tragedies are inevitable, given the very permissive local licensing laws. Teens as young as 15 can get permits in Virginia and Maryland. Washington drivers qualify at age 16 and six months.

“Two weeks more, Dad, and I’m cuttin’ you loose,” says the beardless youth to his father-driver in a State Farm Insurance commercial. State Farm is trolling for a piece of a growing market: While 22 percent of our kids from 16 to 19 owned cars in 1985, some 41 percent do today.

But for all the talk about driving as an American “rite of passage” from adolescence to adulthood, there’s no right to drive a car. Driving is a privilege—and kids with high-risk brains and the turmoils of youth have no business behind the wheel.

Requiring drivers to be at least 17 years old to get a learner’s permit is among the measures Washington can take on to reform the worst drivers in the First World. Likewise, all drivers over the age of 70 should be regularly recertified for licenses by their states. Washington should also revive the national speed limit of 55 to 65 miles an hour. All cell phones should be banned from private vehicles, and helmets mandated for motorcyclists. And given that drunk drivers cause 40 percent of highway deaths, there must be much tougher state and local penalties for D.W.I. offenses, such as instant license revocation.

Meanwhile, we have all those adolescent drivers with risk-prone, immature brain cells and youth’s usual storms. “However badly and hopelessly in love you may be, at 120 miles an hour you are less so,” wrote a young Françoise Sagan, shortly before totaling her Aston-Martin.

Fortune smiled. She only broke her skull.

Getting Risky Teens  Off Our Highway