It couldn’t be that drivers have become better!

Unless they’re old:

Highway deaths have plummeted to their lowest levels in more than 60 years, helped by more people wearing seat belts, better safety equipment in cars and efforts to curb drunken driving…

“Too many of our friends and neighbors are killed in preventable roadway tragedies every day,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will continue doing everything possible to make cars safer, increase seat belt use, put a stop to drunk driving and distracted driving and encourage drivers to put safety first.”

Emphasis mine.

Take a look at that article. It mentions a number of factors which have contributed to the decrease in highway deaths, but it never goes through hoops to make sure we all know that it isn’t because drivers have become better. In fact, the part I put in bold says it all: In addition to safety measures that are independent of the people behind the wheel, drivers are putting safety first. In other words, people are more aware and cautious, i.e., better drivers. But that wasn’t the case when the article was about teens:

“It’s not that teens are becoming safer,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based research group funded by auto insurance companies.

“It’s that state laws enacted in the last 15 years are taking teens out of the most hazardous driving situations,” such as driving at night or with other teens in the car, he said.

In fact, it’s likely teens today are better drivers than teens of past generations. All the laws that are in place do get followed by most teens, whether people want to admit it or not. Even if it only happens once they get caught the first time, they are still following these laws for most of their teenage driving careers. That, by frickin’ definition, makes them better drivers. We can say the same thing about everyone else as well.

The only difference is that no one seems to want to say it.

Because it’s easy to shit all over young people

One thing I’m constantly noticing is how older people tend to give themselves undue favor by virtue of being older. We see it in laws which say work places cannot discriminate against those 40 and older, as if it’s okay to discriminate against someone who is 18. We see it in condescending debates where, once there is either a loss or a stalemate against a younger person, the older person resorts to that old classic, ‘Well, maybe you’ll understand once you’re older.’ It’s all over the place and I can’t stand it. It isn’t that there isn’t value in experience, because of course there is, but experience does not mean someone is therefore well-informed and worldly. Take my university. It’s largely a commuter school designed to accommodate full-time workers with kids who want to attend school part-time. In fact, the average age is about 35 (though among just full-time students, I suspect that average would drop significantly). This means there are a lot of older people* with a lot of experience. Unfortunately, far too many of them feel compelled to sprinkle their life stories throughout class. They’re hardly ever relevant, professors become visibly annoyed, and they serve as a distraction. But do these older people have any clue how much they’re embarrassing themselves? Of course not. They’re clearly under the impression that their experience inherently gives them something of value to contribute; it doesn’t.

I’m ranting about this because I recently read an article about teen driver safety that takes great pains to make sure we don’t even think about giving teen drivers any credit.

Far fewer people are dying in car crashes with teens at the wheel, but it’s not because teenagers are driving more cautiously. Experts say laws are tougher, and cars and highways are safer.

Fatal car crashes involving teen drivers fell by about a third over five years, according to a new federal report that credits tougher restrictions on younger drivers.

The rate of such fatal crashes has been declining since 1996. Experts credit a range of factors, including safer cars with air bags and highway improvements, which reduce the risk of death.

Experts say a chief reason is that most states have been getting tougher on when teens can drive and when they can carry passengers.

“It’s not that teens are becoming safer,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based research group funded by auto insurance companies.

“It’s that state laws enacted in the last 15 years are taking teens out of the most hazardous driving situations,” such as driving at night or with other teens in the car, he said.

It all sounds fair enough – it isn’t doubtful that better vehicles and better roads and better safety laws have made a big difference. But look at the quote from Rader – “It’s not that teens are becoming safer…” The guy is going beyond the evidence.

About five years back I got my first and only speeding ticket. I was going 81mph on the Interstate (where the speed limit is 65mph), the officer was nice enough about it all, and I knew I deserved what I got (though I do wonder if the relatively low fine – $185 – was a result of me not being a douche to him). For the rest of the day I hovered around 70mph. Part of me wanted to be defiant, but my wallet wanted me to keep it slow. Now I virtually never hit 75mph, probably averaging close to 70mph (which, yes, is still speeding, but every rational person knows that is reasonable in good conditions – that’s why no one ever gets ticketed for that speed).

But what does this tell us? Does it tell us that my speed decreased because an officer enforced the law and ticketed me? Yes. But does that mean it’s fair to say I haven’t become a safer driver? Of course not. I am a safer driver on the Interstate now. The law is what spurred me to drive more cautiously (and now I would go my current average speed anyway, threat of tickets or not), and we ought to credit that officer with not only doing his job but with doing a good deed, but that shouldn’t take anything away from me. Just the same, we can credit tougher laws with keeping teen death rates down on the road, but at the same time we need to credit the teens. Take when they drive for 6 months with no passengers. They’re learning good habits and figuring out how to best navigate the roads without distraction. Thanks be to the law, but let us also thank those teens. By following the law, it’s reasonable to say they’re improving as drivers. It’s tough to necessarily measure that claim, but it’s entirely plausible (and even likely). We want to be cautious not to exceed what we have for evidence, but we certainly can’t blindly go discrediting teen drivers.

At the very least, though, the writer of this article went and got the opinion of some teen. (It’s preferable to stick to what experts have to say, but I just like what this teen said.)

In New York, the driver’s license restrictions can at times be annoying, said Ali Janicki, a 17-year-old high school senior in the town of North White Plains.

Janicki had a “junior” license when she was 16, which restricted her from driving after 9 p.m. and from driving with more than one other youth in the car. She broke the rules a few times, giving her sister and a friend a ride home from school, or driving home from a movie after 9.

Sometimes, she also needed a parent to drive her to nighttime parties. “It kind of bugged me,” she said. “But I understand why.”

She said she was nearly in an accident Thursday, but blamed another — older — driver’s error. “I think older people, past about 40, should have to take a test and make sure their eyes are still working the same way,” she said.

Heresy! Older people have all that driving experience! How dare a dumb little, silly teen question the ability of older people to drive! Amirite?

It’s refreshing to read a quote like that, but I wonder how many people over 40 read that quote and felt an increased sense of hostility towards teen drivers.

*Remember, 35 is the average. Most of the “older people” I have in mind are in their 40’s or beyond.