The love-hate relationship between adult America and teenage America took a turn for the worse last week when the D.C. Council approved something called the Safe Teenage Driving Amendment Act of 1999. It sounds great--is anyone out there in favor of unsafe teenage driving?--but in truth it's yet another example of how deeply we mistrust and fear the very young people whom we claim to love and respect.
The new law--which must be approved by the D.C. financial control board and Congress if it is to take effect as scheduled in September of next year--was described in this newspaper as "the strictest teenage driving law in the region." The present system, under which teenage residents of the District can become fully licensed drivers at the age of 16, would be replaced by one under which youths would be limited to learner's- permit driving under adult supervision until the age of 16 1/2; restricted to daytime and evening driving (or nighttime driving under adult supervision) after that; and would not become fully licensed, free of special restrictions, until the age of 18.
At first glance, the new legislation has both evidence and logic on its side. Teenagers (especially those 16 and 17 years old) are accident-prone, all the more so at night, when conditions (both on the road and in drivers' chemistry) are often more confusing and dangerous than in daylight. Driving itself is a complicated and dangerous undertaking, so it makes sense that first-time drivers should be required to meet rigorous standards before being allowed to drive whenever and wherever they so desire. We, too, often forget that driving is a privilege, not a right or an entitlement, and that like other privileges it comes with conditions attached.
But the new D.C. law would be not so much pro-safe-driving as anti-teenage-driving. There is a huge difference. The way to make a teenager (or anyone else) a better driver is to make it harder for him to receive and retain the privilege of driving, yet that is not what this legislation does. It doesn't stiffen the requirements for obtaining a license, it merely prolongs the process. At present a teenager in the District must answer 20 quite ridiculously easy questions (and get only 15 answers right!), submit to a routine eye examination and pass a road test that is most charitably called perfunctory; there is no reason to believe that any of this would change significantly under the new law, only that what is now a quick process would be dragged out to the interminable length of two years.
It is difficult, at best, to see how any of this would make teenagers better drivers. It would keep them off the roads at night, but cut through the "Safe Teenage Driving" hogwash and what it boils down to is a restriction on teenage mobility aimed at making life easier for adults: parents who can use the law as an excuse to keep teenagers under quarantine at night (but who can enjoy the convenience of letting kids drive themselves to school or do errands by day), adult drivers who won't have to worry about wild and crazy teenagers barreling down New York Avenue, and insurance companies that can count on paying fewer claims without--you guessed it--reducing the premiums they charge or the penalties they collect for points against drivers' records.
The Safe Teenage Driving Amendment Act is part and parcel with the curfew that the District now inflicts on teenagers. The underlying assumptions of both laws are that teenagers are inherently irresponsible and dangerous if not outright criminal, that they are incapable of sober thought or action, that they are guilty until proved innocent. As Thomas Hine writes in his recent book, "The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager," on the one hand we inflict upon teenagers laws--such as the two here under discussion--"that deny them, as minors, freedom to move, gather and express themselves," yet simultaneously we subject them to "other laws that require states to prosecute them as adults for a wide variety of serious crimes."
In other words, we treat teenagers as adults when we punish them, as children when we extend them rights and privileges. What matters to us is not their development into responsible adults but our own convenience and self-approval. We force them to lockstep their way through a public school system that places heaviest emphasis on the scores they make on standardized tests and least emphasis on education in breadth and depth. Better test scores permit educational bureaucrats to pat themselves on the back, but what they do to prepare kids to take their places in the adult world (much less enrich their inner lives) is a complete mystery.
The Safe Teenage Driving Amendment Act is exactly the same. It offers the illusion of more stringent licensing requirements but none of the actuality. An undertrained, incompetent teenage driver will still get his license, it'll just take longer before he's at full liberty to make trouble for other drivers and himself, just the way undertrained, incompetent adult drivers do. The written test will still be at the intellectual level of Bozo the Clown and the road test will still be a joke, but the D.C. Council will be able to award itself Brownie points for public service and so, too, once they fall into line, will the financial control board and Congress. It's a triumph of spin over substance, and a great day for hypocrisy.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.