On the Saturday night of their high school’s homecoming weekend in 2009, four teenagers were driving together in Coral Springs, Florida, when their Volkswagen jumped off the road and plunged into a canal. A 15-year-old in the car escaped. Three 16-year-olds – Anthony Almonte, Sean Maxey and Robert Nugent – drowned.
Their families were devastated. Their high school reeled. On Monday morning, one entire class was “hysterical,” a student recalled. But outside of their community, few people noticed. Fatal car crashes aren’t big news. That same week, dozens of other crashes across the country also killed teenagers.
I’m telling you about this particular crash because of the school that Anthony, Sean and Robert attended. It was Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, where last month 17 people were killed in a mass shooting.
Since that shooting, the survivors have done something many people thought impossible. They have changed the debate over guns. They’ve started to shake this country out of its passive acceptance of avoidable death. They have demanded that adults start protecting children from violence.
No other affluent country subjects its teenagers to the risk of violence – or early death – that the United States does, and guns are one of the two big reasons. In 2016, 1,675 Americans between the ages of 13 and 19 were murdered with a gun. That made gun homicides the second leading cause of teenage death.
The top cause, by a large margin, was motor vehicle crashes. They killed 2,829 teenagers.
If the Stoneman Douglas shooting is finally going to stir Americans’ consciences about the unique violence of childhood here, let’s make sure that the discussion doesn’t end with guns. The goal, after all, should be saving lives.
As recently as 1990, driving in America was less dangerous than in most other high-income countries. Today, we have a higher death rate than all of our peers. And teenage driving is a huge part of the problem.
In some ways, guns and car crashes are similar public-health issues. With both, other countries have reduced deaths by following the evidence, and we can follow their lead. If anything, though, reducing vehicle deaths should be easier.
Guns have become a defining partisan and cultural clash – Republican versus Democrat, rural versus metropolitan, old versus young. As a result, reducing gun deaths depends on either persuading one political party to abandon a core position or defeating that party.
Vehicle safety is different. There is no lobbying behemoth like the NRA insisting that teenagers get unrestricted licenses. The states that have adopted the safest teen-driving policies lean left, but only somewhat. Alabama, for example, passed new rules last year. Most states have gotten tougher in the past two decades, and deaths have fallen. But they haven’t fallen nearly enough, because the laws are not tough enough.
Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you should be able to support a campaign to reduce teen-driving deaths. For gun-control supporters like me, it’s part of a broader public-health effort. For NRA supporters, it’s a way to save lives that avoids the Second Amendment.
What about teenagers who don’t like the idea of losing freedom? Many may not actually be upset. Today’s teenagers aren’t as enamored with driving as previous generations.
The solution, experts say, revolves around a system called “graduated driver’s licenses,” in which teenagers slowly gain privileges as they gain experience. The reality is that most 16-year-olds aren’t ready to operate a lethal 2,000-pound machine that can punish a few seconds of inattention with death, for the teen or someone else on the road. The fatal-crash rate for 16- and 17-year olds is about six times higher than the rate for people in their 30s and 40s. Teen driving kills a lot of people.
The ideal system would create three license tiers: first, a permit allowing supervised driving, starting at age 16 or later (not 15, as most states allow); second, an intermediate license, which forbids nighttime driving and distractions, like phone calls or other teens in the car; and finally, after many hours of driving, the full license.
Within this framework, states can still make different choices. Rural states – where driving matters more to daily life – might choose to have somewhat lower age cutoffs. New Jersey, the most densely populated state, makes people wait until age 18 for a full license. New York and Delaware, the two states with the best laws, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, have sharply cut deaths in the past decade.
No set of laws can eliminate driving deaths. But it’s clear that we can keep a lot more teenagers alive. The question is whether we care enough to do so. The students of Stoneman Douglas have held the country’s attention in recent weeks because of the raw moral power of their plea: Stop letting children die, and start acting like adults.Let’s get to it.