By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
I’m on the school carpool circuit at 4 o’clock or so most weekdays, and come spring, it’s not unusual to be stuck in traffic here in Washington next to a jam-packed carload of high school kids, windows down and “Hot 99” blaring on the radio, some double-buckled in one seat, the whole crowd chatting, texting and cell-phoning friends, heading down to the Potomac River for crew practice. (The soccer teams and baseball teams all ride to games in school buses or vans, but crew here in D.C. generally is not school-sponsored, so no bus.) No 40-year-old could drive well in the midst of crew-team chaos--and yet it’s always a new driver, maybe a sophomore or a junior with a big enough family truckster to hold everyone, who is behind the wheel.
Sure it looks like fun, but believe me, I steer clear when I see them coming. Maybe that’s why one of the co-sponsors of the STANDUP Act in Congress is my local congressman--maybe he’s seen them coming too. The new Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act of 2009 would tie federal highway funds with state compliance of new rules for teen drivers, much as federal funds were tied to state seatbelt laws a few years ago. The idea here would be to make age 16 the new across-the-board minimum for a learners’ permit, followed by an intermediate license and then a full unrestricted license at 18. Until you hit 18, there would be no more unsupervised nighttime driving; both cell phones and texting while driving would be outlawed; and no more driving around carloads of friends (no more than one non-family member under 21 in the car, unless you have someone older than 21 to keep a lid on things). Here in the Washington area, there’s a big discrepancy between when you can get a license in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and what the various rules are. I’m sure it’s the same in similar jurisdictions around the country. I don’t think the federal government needs to be involved in everything, but in this case, some uniformity would be great. The only parents I can think of who would be opposed to this legislation are the ones who are so tired of driving carpools that they can’t wait for their 16 year-old to start driving the minivan. I can certainly understand that, but I suspect most parents of teenagers will be relieved to have a law like this to use as the bad cop. Many worry incessantly about the kids driving, but don’t want to be the bad guy and take away the keys without hard evidence of accidents or tickets.
Now if we could only get a similar movement started at the other end of life, so that guys like our kids’ great-grandfather wouldn’t automatically get a drivers’ license while family members worry incessantly. Most adult children hate to take away the keys because of the loss of freedom for their loved ones, but a uniform, restricted license for elderly drivers might be the bad cop they need. Like many teenagers, Grandpa was never actually in any accidents--but we suspected he caused a lot of them. I remember at age 97 when his license was up for renewal; his 60-year-old daughter asked if he’d like her to accompany him to the DMV, so she could keep an eye on him. “No way,” he said, “They’ll think I’m old!” He kept driving until he died, at age 100, of natural causes. Maybe some sort of restricted license (no nighttime driving, no carloads of fellow 90 year-olds) would be a good idea for older folks, too.