Are 16-Year-Olds Too Young to Drive?

Natalie Josef
October 15, 2010

The first time I got behind the wheel of a car, I was 14. As a freshman, I made the varsity soccer team, so I was hanging out with girls who were much older than I was—girls who also enjoyed having a few beers on the weekends. I was out with some friends one night and they didn’t want to drink and drive, so I was unceremoniously put behind the wheel—luckily, no one got hurt.

No one in their right mind would say that a 14-year-old is old enough or mature enough to drive, but I was fine and went on to become a safe and responsible driver when I got my license at 16. Things were also very different back then—no cell phones to talk or text on, for one thing. I also remember a school assembly where we were shown the morgue photos of a drunk driving victim—those images will never leave me and scared the crap out of me. I wonder if schools are so direct these days.

This all brings me to one question—are 16-year-olds old enough to drive? Let’s start off with some facts.

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among American teenagers
  • The fatal crash rates among 16- to 19-year-olds are four times that of older drivers
  • The fatal crash rate for 16-year-olds is 40 percent higher than for 18-year-olds
  • 58 percent of teens are involved in a crash within their first year of driving
  • 56 percent of teens said they make and answer phone calls while driving
  • Almost 65 percent of all teen passenger deaths occurred when another teen was driving
  • Talking on a phone can double the likelihood of an accident and can slow a young driver’s reaction time to that of a 70-year-old
  • Teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use—wearing lap/shoulder belts can reduce the risk of dying in a crash by 45 percent
  • The risk of being involved in a fatal crash for teens is three times greater than for drivers age 65 to 69

What about teens in other countries? When do they get their licenses?

Great Britain

South Korea
United Arab Emirates
South Africa

The U.S. is pretty much alone in issuing unrestricted licenses to 16-year-olds. New Jersey in the only state where the minimum driving age is 17.

The bottom line
Are 16-year-olds old enough to drive? It depends. Some 21-year-olds are ready to drink alcohol responsibly; others aren’t, but the legal drinking age is 21 in this country. It’s a tough thing to decide—such a blanket rule is designed to reflect the reality of the majority, and maybe most 16-year-olds are ready.

But one thing that is indisputable is that driving is a risky endeavor. The average American will make 50,000 car trips in his or her lifetime, making the odds of being killed in a car crash 1 in 140. The odds of being in a plane crash—1 in 250,000.

The truth of the matter is that teens are different from adults—they are more prone to risky and rebellious behavior because their brains’ emotional development remains relatively immature and voraciously seeks arousal, novelty, and risk. They have less experience with alcohol and are less likely to know their limits. They are more susceptible to peer pressure (how else would I have been persuaded to drive at only 14?). They are ill-equipped to make split-second reflex decisions behind the wheel. This all increases the risk of injury or death in something that is already risky.

The likelihood of the age being changed from 16 is minimal. What does seem to be working is graduated driver licensing, where restrictions on teen drivers are lessened as they gain experience and keep a clean driving record—in other words, reward the good drivers and penalize the bad. That's pretty much the American way.


Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

1 User Comment

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By , January 19, 2011
im 14 and live in a state where you can get your restricted license after driving with a permit for six months (3 if you take drivers ed) and i am a pretty good driver because i took drivers ed and don't let other teens distract me. i dont think the age should be raised i think that every state should do it this way becuase it works.