This past week brought a tragic car/train accident in Southeastern Michigan that managed to make it into national news.
Early last Thursday afternoon a passing Amtrak train pulverized a car full of young people when the driver decided to circumvent waiting cars at the crossing in an attempt to beat the train. The car occupants included four boys and a girl, ranging in age from 14 to 21.
The driver was 19 and operating the vehicle on a suspended license. It took a mile before the train came to a complete stop. When I saw the initial footage on TV taken by helicopter, I couldn’t tell where the car was.
Every time I hear of an accident of this magnitude, I hold my breath, in part because I have children in that age range, and in part because my business trains young people how to drive.
Of course an accident like this one is a sad situation, one that causes any reasonable parent to take pause. Today’s Detroit Free Press includes some opinion pieces regarding the accident. One in particular written by Rochelle Riley bemoans the fact that the Michigan state legislature is to blame because it is legal for 14-year-olds to “get a license” before they have any experience.
You got it wrong, Ms. Riley. Michigan’s graduated licensing law isn’t perfect, but it's far better than it was pre-1997. For 20 years before that, Michigan teenagers took two weeks of class, had two to six hours of driving with an instructor, and automatically got their license after 30 days on a permit.
The Michigan Graduated Level One License is not a driver’s license in the traditional sense. It’s a fancy governmental name for a learner’s permit. The only way a minor can get one is by taking 24 hours of class, six hours of driving, four hours of observation and a passing grade in a rigorous written exam.
True, kids can get a permit here if they are 14 years and nine months old. The reason for changing the law to such a young age is so that those kids can practice with their parents for 15 months. That’s because young drivers have to have at least six months on the permit, take and pass the Segment II class, pass a road skills test, and be at least 16 years old in order to get the Level Two or restricted license.
Despite what some people think, a driver’s license is not a right, but a privilege that has to be earned. Graduated licensing provides steps to complete before the privilege can be given.
But it’s not just the kids who are given an enormous privilege at such a tender age. Parental attitudes are a huge part of the equation. Graduated licensing was born out a desire to give more control and participation to the young driver’s parent.
Teenagers often make bad choices as they find their way through adulthood. There are some studies that show the minds of young people aren’t fully matured until the person hits their mid-20s. Responsible driving isn’t a given, no matter if the child is obedient, friendly or intelligent. Mix in other factors like hormonal raging, peer pressure, and ADD and the stakes are raised to a higher level. It is only with practice, practice, and more practice that driving skills are honed to a level where a child can be considered safe.
Unfortunately, many parents view driver education and the obtaining of a license as just another rite of passage as well as a right as a citizen. They can’t wait for their child to become mobile and independent. This attitude is often passed on to the child. Lost in all this is the fact that driving an automobile is a serious proposition, one that could have life and death consequences.
When first licensed, my children were not allowed to have passengers in the car. In fact, we would not allow my son to drive with his younger sister in the car until he had a few months of experience under his belt. I remember the time I told the mother of my daughter’s friend that the child would be riding with my son, still a new driver. Her response made me feel like I had just landed from another planet, but I felt it was my responsibility to inform the parent.
Just because the state can license a child doesn’t mean it’s automatic. It is still the parent of the minor child who has all of the control. Just because the child has taken the classes doesn’t mean that they have the right to a permit or license; if your child isn’t ready, don’t go to the Secretary of State and sign your consent. What most parents and some adolescents don’t realize is that until the driver reaches adulthood (age 18), the parent has the right to petition to revoke the permit or license. This gives the parent absolute say in driving privileges.
Graduated licensing is working. Accident rates among young people have been lowered since its passage.
The Unlicensed Threat on Our Roads
All of this is fine stuff, but the unfortunate driver in this car/train wreck was 19 years old and driving on a suspended license.
First of all, he should have known enough not to race an Amtrak train going 65 mph. He should have known if the gates were down, they were down for a reason and no emergency in the world would justify trying to go around them.
As an adult, he should have known better than drive at all. The sad fact is that in the state of Michigan, driving without a license is more commonplace than one might think. It’s the number two ticket law enforcement writes in this state. I’ve seen unlicensed kids drive themselves to class and unlicensed adults drive themselves to road test appointments. There is little downside in getting caught and so people continue to drive, thinking that it’s their right.
We could blame law enforcement for not keeping the unlicensed drivers off the road; unfortunately, the jails would be full of scofflaw drivers if there ever were a crackdown.
There are a few minor things the Secretary of State could adjust to bring about change. Unlike other states, in Michigan one can title a car without having a valid license, which is how people can title cars to minor children. Ensuring vehicle registrations are made by people with valid licenses would go a long way to curbing the phenomenon of unlicensed drivers taking to the road.
Also, in this state yearly car registrations can be made by mail without a cross reference to the person’s driving record. Michigan should adopt a similar registration program as California. In California any outstanding tickets show up on the renewal and have to be cleared before the tabs are released to the automobile owner. This goes for parking tickets as well as moving violations.
Finally, there has to be a lasting penalty for unlicensed drivers. Suspending licenses is not helping in an atmosphere where people think they have the right to drive without one. Perhaps if their vehicles were confiscated, these drivers would get with the program and either obtain a valid license for the first time or clean up their record.
Parents and educators can and should use this unfortunate accident as a tool. Unfortunately, many adolescents won’t listen. They genuinely believe “it couldn’t happen to them.” For most of them, knock on wood, it won’t happen to them. But life is too short not to bring the possibility of calamity to the forefront.
Nothing can take away the grief for the families of those five accident victims. It will be a sad week for them. Perhaps they can take comfort if a single teenager culls one grain of wisdom from this sad moment and waits for a train.