“Lane ends. Merge right.”
The sign gave plenty of notice that the two-lane arterial merged into a single lane ahead. The speed limit was 35 miles per hour. I travelled in the right lane, doing about 40. My girlfriend sat in the passenger seat. To my left, I could tell the driver of a car behind me wanted to pass before his lane ended.
I stepped on the gas, speeding up to force the other driver to switch lanes behind me. But he sped up too, intent on getting in front of me before the lane ended. I pushed my right foot deeper into the accelerator, hitting 50-mph. The 4-cylinder engine of my ’84 Accord whined loudly, but was drowned out by my girlfriend’s screams to slow down.
But I didn’t slow down. There was no way I was getting passed. No way I’d let him have the satisfaction of cutting me off. Our cars were neck-and-neck as the lane ended. 55-mph. My girlfriend’s screaming turned to outright yelling, but I’d won. The other driver slowed and pulled in behind me.
RIGHT behind me. In my rear-view mirror I could see a fuming driver, probably 40-years-old. I turned into the driveway of my destination, a drugstore parking lot. He followed. I parked. He parked next to me. I wasn’t scared, though. I mean, I was 16. I just got my license. I was king of the world and he was an old man. Against my girlfriend’s pleas, I got out of the car and approached him.
The story ended much better than it could have. He thoroughly yelled at me, called me the predictable names you would expect and threatened to beat the tar out of me. He even threatened to shoot me. I never saw a gun, but he very well could have had one. I walked away from the situation, proud that I’d put an old guy in his place. But had things gone differently, I could have not walked away at all.
And that’s why I believe 16-year-olds are too young to drive a vehicle on public roads.
I really hate to say that because the freedom that driving brings to young people can be their ticket to a job and their first real introduction to adulthood. But it can also lead to unjustifiable road rage, feelings of superiority, invincibility and an early death. Personally, I matured very quickly after that embarrassing incident and today, 16 years later, I rarely drive 3-mph over the limit. But I see teens driving like I once did, and I read stories like this one in the NY Times saying traffic fatalities have increased among 16-17-year-olds by 21 percent over last year.
Who knows, maybe teens today don’t have the rage issues I did as a new driver. Maybe the culprit for the increase in deaths is a factor I never had to deal with as a teen: an addiction to texting.
I don’t know if the answer is to increase the legal driving age, make texting-while-driving a crime or just keep things as they are and hope teens learn their lessons by the time they grow up. For now, if a speedy teen driver doesn’t want me to pass him, I’ll just slow down and let him feel like he won.
Are graduated licensing programs are enough, or should the legal driving age be pushed back a few years?