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O'Sullivan

The time has come to talk about boosting the minimum driving age

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Imagining that naiveté is reserved for the young is really dumb.

A few years ago, I stumbled into the kitchen bright and early on a Saturday morning, and saw a hastily scribbled note on the refrigerator: "Mom, I had a minor accident with the car. Everything's fine." For about five seconds, I took the note at face value, but reality hit when I got outside.

The car had a mesquite branch, 3 inches in diameter and 7 feet in length, sticking out of the windshield, right through to a skewered back seat. Six inches to the right, and it would have gone through his head.

Everything wasn't fine. When I wrangled the kid from his bed, he said that around 1 in the morning, he had been looking for a CD on the floor of the passenger side while he was attempting a right turn. He never even saw the mesquite tree, half of which he brought home with him.

Recently, I started a new job in the basement of a facility without cell-phone reception. When break time came around, I emerged into the sunlight to check my messages. The count was six, all from my ex, several in capital letters.

My second son was in the emergency room. He'd had a head-on collision with another car. The airbags deployed, and neither he nor the other driver received more than broken noses and black eyes. If the air bags hadn't deployed, both would have wound up in intensive care or dead. Of this, I have no doubt.

We rush around, our minds loaded with things to do, things not yet done, talking on cell phones, text messaging, blasting music loud enough to drown out the sound of the engine. I'm no physicist, but this has always seemed less than wise to me, considering mass times acceleration and all that. Air bags, bloodied clothes, broken glass all over the boulevard--these are the visions I'm starting to see. I'm sure the people who invented cars thought they were on to a very good thing, but I wonder these days whether we all wouldn't be better off if they'd elected to simply stay home in bed.

Which is where my personal naiveté comes in. When I turned 16, I couldn't wait to drive. Driving meant freedom to roam, away from my parents and away from being seen with my parents, and for a teenager, those things are game and match. But that was a long time ago. Times have changed. There was a fraction of the number of cars on the road then. These days, iPods, rapid-fire text messages, phone calls, fast-food meals and a seemingly infinite number of other distractions are part and parcel of the automotive experience. Driving has become a high-speed clusterfuck just waiting to happen.

Like everybody else, I see the world as a blur out my tinted car window. But I occasionally ride a bike, and it's become a sort of fetish to stop at all the roadside shrines--you know the kind, with crosses and plastic flowers. I check the dates. The victims are almost always younger than 20.

We harangue our teenagers about sexually transmitted infections, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, the violent content of video games, mass-produced entertainment, even guns. Yet according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (which is funded by auto insurers), motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers. Sixteen-year-olds have higher crash rates than drivers of any other age and are three times more likely to die in motor-vehicle crashes than all other drivers. These rates increase with each additional passenger. According to a 2005 report by the Allstate Foundation, 56 percent of drivers age 15 to 17 use cell phones while driving, and--this one really got me, since it's exactly what my son did--a full 64 percent of drivers in this age group said they speed up to go through a yellow light.

The idea that 16-year-olds are old enough to drive is outdated. They are not. The numbers speak for themselves. Why this subject is never brought up, let alone seriously debated, is perplexing. I suspect it has something to do naïve parents like me dragging our own versions of romanticized realities--soaked in memories of hot rods and muscle cars, drive-in movies, the open road and freedom--into circumstances in which they are totally irrelevant.

There is no open road anymore. And there is absolutely nothing romantic about driving.

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