Want to save teens? Driving restrictions could save at least as many lives as gun control

In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Parkland, a flurry of proposals to protect teens have been fielded, including raising the age to buy assault-style weapons, more intrusive background checks, and more resources for the mentally ill. While all of these gun control measures can help, many more teens could be protected by tougher “car control” efforts.

Unfortunately, even if most of gun control proposals currently discussed are implemented — and most should — it’s a mistake to overestimate their likely effect. The data shows, for example, that raising the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 used at Parkland would “do depressingly little” to prevent mass shootings. Indeed, banning the gun altogether would also not do much because it is so rarely used in any kind of gun violence. Experts do say that tougher background checks that a nearly overwhelming majority of Americans want could help, but they “would only make a dent” in gun deaths.

A better mental health system? Duke University School of Medicine professor Dr. Jeffrey Swanson writes:

{mosads}Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem. If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.


None of this is meant to suggest that steps shouldn’t be taken along the lines of the proposals simply because their effect may be more limited than we might hope. If they can prevent even just a few deaths that’s real progress. But let’s seize this opportunity to take a holistic view of preventing teen deaths, and take aim at the biggest killer: motor vehicle accidents.

Although about 2,300 high schoolers die each years from guns (from all causes, including accidents and suicides), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) nevertheless says that “motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens.” In fact, the CDC states that in 2015 “six teens ages 16–19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries.” In other words, in the 18 days since the five teens (of the 17 victims) in that age group were killed in Parkland, well more than 100 teens nationwide may have died from motor vehicle injuries. Those deaths don’t make the national media, so there is little collective outrage, but there should be.

Many of these deaths are needless. The CDC believes that “teen motor vehicle crashes are preventable, and proven strategies can improve the safety of young drivers on the road.” CDC data shows that teens are far more likely than adults to engage in avoidable driving behaviors that end in their deaths. Nearly 40 percent of teens, for example, do not use seat belts. Many drive with excessive speed and some drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Other statistics show that drivers “under the age of 20 make up the largest percentage of distracted drivers” – largely because of cell phone usage while driving.

What can be done? Raise the driving age to 18 for starters. Why? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/Highway Loss Data Institute notes that:

In the United States, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16-19 year-olds is nearly 3 times the rate for drivers ages 20 and over. Risk is highest at ages 16-17. In fact, the fatal crash rate per mile driven is nearly twice as high for 16-17 year-olds as it is for 18-19 year-olds.

They also point out that “raising the licensing age” along with “strong restrictions on nighttime driving and teen passengers” could operate to reduce “rates of fatal crashes and insurance collision claims.” A determined electorate could insist such restrictions be implemented nation-wide.

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt believes we could “easily” reduce teen auto deaths by tough enforcement of speeding laws and those requiring seatbelt use, barring 16 year-olds from driving, and lowering the threshold for what constitutes unlawfully driving while intoxicated. Leonhardt admits however, that: “The political problem with all of these steps, of course, is that they restrict freedom, and we Americans like freedom.” 

So the question is this: are high schoolers ready to support restrictions on their freedom in order to save themselves and their classmates?

Teens have been rightly praised for taking the lead in advocating for more gun control measures. But these efforts could affect the constitutional rights of the 42 percent of Americans who live in gun-owner households, as well as the more than 44 million afflicted with mental illness of some kind who may find themselves subject to greater governmental monitoring as a significant majority of Americans now seem to want.

It is relatively easy, however, to advocate for actions that disenfranchise others, but quite another to call for measures which will restrict the privileges of the activists themselves. Yet if we are serious about saving teen lives, they too must join the ranks of those who are being asked to sacrifice for the greater good.

Charles Dunlap, Jr. is the executive director of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security and a retired major general in the U.S. Air Force. 

Tags Adolescence Charlie Dunlap Distracted driving Road safety Road traffic safety Traffic collision

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