Illinois roads are not demanding.
Neither are its driving laws
March 7, 1980
Illinois being a big state, Illinoisans do a lot of driving. How well they do it was a minor preoccupation of mine and I wrote several pieces about it over the years. In this one I proposed making driver's licenses harder to get, especially for teens. For reasons that had nothing to do with this column, the State of Illinois would do just that in a few years, and the roads are safer for everyone as a result. As for demanding more of older drivers, I took that up here.
I haven’t any way to prove it, but I’d bet there are more virgins among Illinois adults than there are nondrivers. Driving a car, of course, is a more necessary skill in our culture than sex, and indeed is regarded by many people as more natural; I know because I didn’t begin driving until 1 was nearly thirty, and I remember that when they learned I didn’t drive, people looked at me as if I’d confessed to some perversion.
Alas, Americans aren’t much better at driving than they are at sex. This is especially true of the young, whose approach to both skills is a deadly compound of ignorance, hormones, and inexperience.
The results are predictably unfortunate. In the case of driving, for example, a survey by the Illinois Insurance Information Service revealed that 40 percent of Illinois’s fatal car accidents in 1978 involved drivers younger than twenty-four years, even though that group accounted for only 22 percent of the state’s licensed drivers. Those same drivers were involved in 35.5 percent of all the accidents in which someone was hurt, and in 31.4 percent of accidents in general—disturbing numbers, for they show not only that young drivers have proportionately more accidents than the rest of us but that those accidents are more likely to result in injury or death.
More interesting still, the IIIS figures show that the odds of being in an accident go up as drivers’ ages go down. While 19.5 percent of the twenty- to twenty-four-year-olds were involved in accidents in 1978, 22 percent of the eighteen- to nineteen-year-olds, 23 percent of the seventeen-year-olds and no fewer than 29 percent of the sixteen-year-olds were. It is a well-known, if not yet well-appreciated, fact that car accidents are one of the leading causes of death among the young. So is suicide, though after reviewing the statistics I confess I have trouble seeing the difference between them.
It was with more curiosity than usual, then, that I greeted the publication in last Sunday’s State Journal-Register of three essays by Springfield area high schoolers. Their topic was, “High School Driver Education: Is It Doing the Job?” written as part of a $500 scholarship contest sponsored by the Illinois Editors’ Traffic Safety Seminar. I have no wish to comment on these efforts as essays; I was much more interested in what they said than in how they said it.
Driver ed is one of those adolescent preoccupations—first kisses and proms are among the others—whose importance is exaggerated by its newness. The State of Illinois requires sixteen-year-olds to complete thirty hours of classroom instruction and six behind-the-wheel practice sessions before they can get licenses—this of course in addition to the written and behind-the-wheel examinations required of all would-be drivers. (The classroom sessions include some ponderous adult finger wagging in the form of repellent films showing the gruesome aftermath of car wrecks. The films make some kids ill, and though I doubt whether they make any kids better drivers, they have been known to keep them away from movies for awhile.) Indeed, completing classroom driver ed is like passing a test on the U.S. Constitution, a requirement for high school graduation, even for those who, like me, had no intention of applying for a license. (Virtually the only things the General Assembly insists that Illinois high schoolers know is how many amendments there are in the Bill of Rights and what “right on red” means. Readers may judge for themselves what this tells us about the General Assembly, the automobile, and the rule of law in the late twentieth century.) Ostensibly this instruction is intended to teach young people how to be good drivers. In fact it is intended only to teach them how to get a driver’s license. The two—and this is important to any understanding of teenage accident statistics—are not the same thing.
Of the classroom instruction, one of our essayists complains, “such quizzes . . . are actually a better test of students’ cheating abilities,” since students are allowed to ask each other for help. (Me, I worry about kids having to ask someone for help while they're driving.) Worse, she goes on, the permit test questions “are often overly simple or they are unfair, trivial questions, rarely pertaining to daily driving.” True on both counts; when I took mine I finished it correctly in fewer than thirty seconds. It was then that I began to suspect that any, test that everyone can pass is no test at all.
Neither the behind-the-wheel instruction nor the license exam that follows it are any more taxing; indeed the most onerous part of becoming a driver is paying the $8.00 license fee. Unlike most people I was not a nervous sixteen year old when I took my driver’s exam but a fully formed adult with some experience of the world. Where a teenager emerges from the test feeling relieved, I emerged from it feeling angry. I was disappointed to learn that the written exam was no more demanding than the permit test had been. I was even more disappointed to discover that the behind-the-wheel exam consisted of puttering about the neighborhood for perhaps ten minutes along a route that covered residential streets almost exclusively, interrupted only by a few stop signs and one or two traffic lights plus the requisite turn-around.
I was not asked to perform any of the standard maneuvers I’d learned were necessary to the operation of a car in city traffic, such as laying on one’s horn at right-on-red intersections or double-parking on Cook Street while waiting for Illinois Bell employees. Nor, on a more serious level, was I asked to enter, navigate, and exit an interstate highway, pass a car or a truck on a narrow two-lane highway, park parallel, handle the car in rush-hour traffic, or drive at night or in rain or snow or any other inclement weather. I was asked to park my car on a hill—this in one of the flatter cities, in one of the flatter states in the union. Don’t think this little exercise doesn’t help, though; I’ll wager that not one of the 1,019,934 Illinois drivers involved in accidents the year I took my test earned that unhappy distinction because of runaway parked cars careening down hillsides.
But, as another of our safety- minded essayists pointed out, “Attitude is the missing link” in the state’s driver ed program. It is seldom acknowledged that by the time most high school sophomores walk into the first classroom driver ed session they’ve already had hundreds of hours of driver ed from their parents, friends, and relatives with whom they’ve ridden over the years. Drivers ed becomes, like sex education, an exercise in prudence and intelligence contradicted at every comma by the culture outside the classroom. Worse, the very irrelevance of formal driver ed courses contributes to the sham. Kids learn that it’s okay to cheat—harmless enough in class, but potentially fatal when they start doing it at sixty-five miles per hour. They learn too, that if adults insist on silly driving courses, they must not take good driving seriously.
Cures? One of our essayists suggests “adequate equipment and teaching techniques must be uniformly provided”—sentiments which should earn her a nice career at the Illinois Office of Education but which miss the point, I think. No, this problem requires more drastic steps. Stiffening the driver’s exam in both its written and behind-the-wheel phases to include a wider range of driving situations would help. So would less forgiving enforcement of traffic laws.
The single biggest step, however, is to simply raise the minimum driving age to eighteen, nineteen, even twenty-one. A year or so ago I read of a study that suggested that it is the immaturity of the young driver, not his or her training, that is the cause of teens’ appalling driving record. Because of this, the compulsory driver ed programs have made U.S. streets less safe, not more, because they have made it possible for large numbers of sixteen-year-olds to take to the streets legally.
This is a useful insight, and one which might profitably be applied to a wide range of political issues involving the young. I begin to wonder, for example, if the General Assembly didn’t make a mistake in raising the drinking age in Illinois. One of the big reasons for the change was the rise in alcohol-related pileups involving young people. But is that record because they can’t handle liquor, or because they can’t handle cars? I suspect the latter. Let them drink at nineteen, I say. Just don’t let them drive. □
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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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