Is teen driving a rite of passage or reckless endangerment?

Some protest that youth recklessness creates potential danger for teen drivers

After six painstaking months of anticipation, a young woman finally receives her driver’s license. Giddy with pride and excitement to get on the road, she jumps happily into her bright blue BMW. As she careens down the highway, wind blows furiously through her shiny hair as a wide smile creeps onto her face.

When most people envision teen driving, happy and idealized images like this one often come to the forefront of their imagination. Driver’s licenses allow young people to enjoy freedom and mature responsibilities without their parents’ supervision.

“I feel like it’s cliché but, [my license] gave me the freedom to go wherever I want. I’m able to drive myself to work or to my friends house and I don’t have to plan stuff as much,” Acalanes senior Sofia Gonzalez said. “I have definitely been able to drive further out to see friends that I wouldn’t get to see as much that live in Palo Alto or San Jose.”

Many parents agree that the liberties that driving provides teens cannot be understated. Licenses not only free children from their parents but also parents from their children.

“From a parent’s perspective, it is both glorious and terrifying. Glorious in that I don’t have to be an Uber driver, a Lyft driver, or a taxi service for small things,” Acalanes math teacher and parent Misha Buchel said.

Assuming liability for a car also teaches teenagers skills of commitment and responsibility.

“I pay for my own gas, which made me pay way closer attention to everything that was going on in the world. It affected oil prices, and then gas prices for me,” junior Sarah Gohres said. “It kind of helps me with budgeting more so I’m more financially stable.”

Despite its benefits, the public does not express unanimous support for teen drivers. Some people protest that youth recklessness creates potential danger for teenage drivers as well as others on the road.

“I think that in general it is a little too easy to get your license because these days it’s so easy to pass a driving test and once they [teens] are on their own they just do whatever they want. I feel like there should be some added precautions or some extra training,” senior Sarah Haines said.

After receiving their licenses, young drivers have to abide by extra regulations. From ages 16 to 17, drivers must adhere to an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m curfew. Additionally, with the exception of specific circumstances, young drivers cannot legally transport any passengers under the age of 20 for their first year with a valid license.

“When you add on distractions with friends and distractions with devices, it can lead to some pretty bad circumstances. Being pulled over and getting a ticket is the best case scenario, but I’ve seen some pretty bad accidents in my 19-year career,” retired police officer Rob McSorley said.

A study organized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that the likelihood of teen drivers engaging in one or more risky behaviors when traveling with multiple passengers increased three times compared to when driving alone.

Although certain statistics argue that extra provisions regarding passengers ensure young drivers’ safety, some students contend that allowing friends in their car makes them feel less nervous.  

“When I was finally driving with my friends, it actually calmed me down a little. I was able to, not necessarily stop focusing on the road, I was still paying attention and being aware of my surroundings, but it took the anxiety away,” Gohres said. “I noticed that my hands got less sweaty, I wasn’t white knuckling the steering wheel, it just kind of made everything a little less stressful, and more freeing and fun.”

The responsibility of driving gives teens the authority to make a myriad of potential positive and negative choices. Some teenagers exercise this power by consciously deciding to drive under the influence of alcohol.

“I have drunk a decent amount before getting behind the wheel but I wouldn’t say to the point where I was incapable of controlling myself. I’d say it was definitely not the smartest decision,” said one Acalanes student , who like other students quoted in this story wished to remain anonymous. 

According to the CDC, young drivers are 17 times more likely to die in a crash when they have a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent versus when they have not been drinking.

Despite this reality, a second Acalanes student stated that they drive under the influence on a weekly basis. They also noted a separate occasion where they ingested 15 beers before getting behind the wheel.      

Contrary to their actions, the student recognizes the dangerous weight of their choice to drive while intoxicated.

“I don’t think it is safe to drive under the influence of alcohol, and I don’t think alcohol or any drugs make you a better driver,” this student said.

   While many teens understand the risks of driving drunk, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Research Institute stated that, in 2019, 24 percent of young drivers involved in fatal crashes had blood alcohol levels  of 0.01 grams per deciliter or higher.

In spite of this information, a common belief among young people is that some illegal substances are better for driving than others. Numerous students attest that driving under the influence of marijuana is not dangerous.

“I think that when you are high, your physical abilities as a person are not as impaired as when you are drunk. When I am high, the symptoms aren’t stumbling around and slurring my words, I am just in an altered state of mind that is not physical,” the first Acalanes student said. “When you are drunk, you have less coordination, less of an ability to process information, especially when you are really intoxicated. I think that is just because factually speaking, it is better to be high than drunk when you are driving.”

However, a separate survey conducted by the federal transportation safety authority reported that, “marijuana use impairs psychomotor skills, divided attention, lane tracking, and cognitive functions.” In other words, marijuana undermines all essential skills utilized for safe driving.

Taking this ideology one step further, some teens argue that driving high increases the driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely.

“I mean, it doesn’t make me a better driver but it makes me a safer driver. I’ll say that because I drive a lot slower and really think and focus a lot more,” the second Acalanes student said. “One thing I will really say is that when I’m under the influence of marijuana and I’m driving I don’t really use my phone at all because I’m focused on actually driving.”

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that every day, nine people in the United States die from distracted driving. One of the main complications involved in inattentive teen driving is the use of electronic devices. 

Cell phones pose a critical distraction for teens on the road. Many students listen to music while they drive, noting that certain apps occupy attention that could be used on the traffic ahead. 

“I definitely am on my phone while I’m driving, because I use Spotify a lot to change my music. Sometimes playlists you make before you start driving aren’t good enough so you have to change the queue while on the road,” Acalanes senior Brooke Blacklidge said.

Another consideration is teens’ unfaithful adherence to speed limits. Although driving at a speed that is safe given the conditions is required by law for all drivers, many young adults ignore these requirements.  

“If [teenagers] are in a 25-35 [zone], and they’re used to driving 15-20 miles an hour faster on the freeway, then, instead of going 50, they could be going 75. That speed perception translates over to city streets without them realizing,” said McSorely, the retired police officer.

While hazardous driving may not seem prevalent to some people in Lamorinda, information sourced from the Kuvara Law Firm recorded that from February to December of 2020 there were 6,185 motor vehicle accidents in the Bay Area. Of those collisions, 667 involved fatal or serious injuries.   

Many students note that even the Acalanes parking lot is a hotspot for unfortunate mishaps.

“I have seen several accidents in the Acalanes parking lot. I also know people who have witnessed accidents,” junior Mason Michlitsh said.

Not only is the parking lot a breeding ground for potential accidents, but numerous students have personal stories regarding incidents that damaged their vehicles. 

“I was in park, and I had pulled back into my spot, I wasn’t sticking out or anything, and she had halfway pulled out. There was a car behind her so she was waiting for them. She just didn’t look on my side to see that I was still there and that she had to back up more straight before she turned. So she hit near the back [of the car] by the gas cap,” Haines said.

An abundance of students note that the chaotic nature of the parking lot is difficult for novice drivers to maneuver. However, some students also acknowledge that navigating the lot becomes easier when drivers remain calm.  

“It is kind of hectic sometimes, like when you are trying to back out and someone just comes speeding out of nowhere or someone just walks up in between two cars. But other than that, it is not too difficult. You just have to take your time and not stress out,” junior Sammy Lee said.

All of these circumstances highlight the dangerous realities that come with teen driving, leaving the question as to whether or not the practice is safe. 

And back to the young woman at the beginning of this story, it’s a great possibility that during her drive she could merge off the freeway and enter her school parking lot. Her broad grin would fade as she witnesses an SUV completely rear-end her friend’s Toyota Camry, causing her to ponder whether the freedom she felt moments before outweighs her safety.