By on April 29, 2021

There I was the other day, driving down Chicago’s famed Lake Shore Dr., stuck in traffic, when I looked over to my right and saw a kid at the wheel who was almost certainly too young to be a licensed driver.

He was supervised by an adult in the passenger seat, but the sight was still jarring.

And it sent my head spinning. On the one hand, I’ve long advocated for young drivers to get more time behind the wheel. I’ve been saying, almost since I got my own license, that arguing over whether kids should get licensed at 16, 17, or 18 misses the point — to me, it’s more about how much training young drivers get than how old they are.

Indeed, when I got into the Chevrolet Cavalier for my first “official” on-road drive as part of driver’s ed, I’d already been behind the wheel. My parents had let me drive a bit on empty farm roads and in empty farm fields, and even, on rare occasions, around our subdivision.

Meanwhile, my drive partner had never once driven an automobile. Guess who slammed into the curb immediately upon putting the car into drive? Hint: NOT yours truly.

On the other hand — Lake Shore Drive? Really? It’s one thing for a kid to learn how to drive by slowly tooling around a road surrounded by cornfields or under his parents’ watchful eye on lightly-traveled suburban side streets? LSD is a busy highway, and when traffic is moving, it moves at highway speeds.

I tried not to judge — maybe this kid just looked younger than he was. Maybe he’s had a bunch of wheel time. Certainly, the state of Illinois requires more hours behind the wheel now than it did in the mid-90s.

And sure — my last on-road drive with an instructor involved a freeway hike. Freeway driving is a necessary skill to learn when in driver’s ed. So, yeah, maybe the kid was just about done with his on-road learning.

Yet, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my old argument. So I pose to you — is age or behind-the-wheel experience more important when it comes to getting youngsters licensed safely?


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37 Comments on “QOTD: Youth Behind the Wheel...”

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    The best drivers I know are all farm boys and girls. The allure of driving was gone by the age of 10, probably, and they can all wrench on anything and handle any gearbox, from a non-synchro 5-ton to a Massey-Ferguson to a Peterbuilt cabover.

    • 0 avatar

      All my grandchildren have had years of experience on garden tractors and go karts. They’re approaching driving age and I’m confident they will be proficient from the start.

    • 0 avatar

      My dad was a logger and trucker. My brother and I could drive his Mack trucks and perform maintenance on them well before getting our licenses. We drove quite a bit on trails, gravel pits, and deserted remote roads.

      I started taking my son’s out onto powerline right-of-ways, trails etc. Before they got their “learners”. I put on a ton of miles before the did road tests for their solo “novice” licence.

      My youngest did his road test in a smaller town south of our town due to a shorter wait list. We borrowed the ex’s CRV but a transport truck took out the side window. He passed his rest the same day in my pickup.

  • avatar

    Seat time matters far more than age. I’d rather have the 11-year-old who won Junior Sportsman last Sunday try to go around me on a roundabout than have a never-driven-anything 21-year-old stop in front of me to let someone in.

  • avatar

    Meh, just put them in an “Autopilot” equipped Tesla.

    The way I hear it from some folks, nothing can possibly go wrong…..

    • 0 avatar
      Dave M.

      That crash down here near Houston sounds pretty spectacular…especially if they find in fact there really was no one in the driver’s seat.

      • 0 avatar

        Except they’re now saying that because of the deformation in the steering wheel indicates someone was in the driver’s and was push into the back seat. Besides, I don’t know of many sedans where you could actually climb from the driver’s seat to the rear passenger seat while the car is moving. Doesn’t make sense. But, hitting a tree that then forces the driver into the back seat is a little more plausible.

        That accident and trying to blame autopilot takes the focus off of what might have been the real cause and an even bigger issue. The acceleration of some Teslas could be enough to induce some sort of medical issue. Some people won’t be able to handle acceleration. I’ve experienced multiple Gs in aircraft and trust me, it’s not easy on the body. We don’t know the medical condition of the driver, but hard acceleration could have caused him to black out depending on his health.

        • 0 avatar

          Hitting a tree or other immovable object generally sends an unbelted occupant through the windshield. It’s called inertia, the tendency of an object in motion to continue in the same direction.

          When you can show me with a little physics how smashing into the steering wheel sends you into the back seat, I’ll listen to your “theory”.

        • 0 avatar

          1. The driver and passenger seatbacks are still in place, upright, and intact in the burned Tesla. (Though they sure look crispy.) So the seats didn’t break.
          2. Besides which, one of the deceased was found in the front passenger seat. How would one of the two been pushed into the back and not the other?
          3. Also, momentum would have sent the deceased toward the windshield, not the back seat.
          4. Some Tesla peanut gallery members seem to be hanging their hat on the idea that the collision was at super-high speed, like 80mph or more. False. The car was found in one piece, with the floorpan still nice and rectangular. It was the fire that did almost all the damage. Some black-box data would sure be nice to clarify the moment of impact. Of course, the fire destroyed an awful lot of the car, so who knows what will be recoverable?

  • avatar

    There is nothing quite so terrifying as watching your 16 year old with a newly minted license drive off solo for the first time.

    • 0 avatar


    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      It was scarier for me watching my 18-year-old son ride off on his first motorcycle with a fresh M endorsement on his license. It’s just a 250 and he doesn’t drink, so that helps.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        You worry more because of the other idiots on the road in that situation. If he is starting off on a 250 vs a 600 or something he probably understands riding pretty well.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve seen an interesting shift in MVC’s involving motorcycles over the years. Young riders were usually the victims but now I see mostly boomers getting hurt on large cruisers and touring bikes.
        I’ve talked to several people and suggested buying a small used bike first and then move into a big bike. Egos get in the way of logic. My brother was pizzed off when I made the suggestion. I have a blast on my 400cc Suzuki dualsport.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    The first time I drove was in my dad’s ’88 Corvette. I was 12 and he was going to be turning it back in at the end of his lease and he wanted to make sure I had a chance to drive one in my lifetime.

    I don’t think there’s any right or wrong, drivers need to have the confidence to drive in all conditions but not be too confident that they let themselves get distracted or take unnecessary risks.
    I was praised by my driver’s ed teacher as one of the best students he ever had. That didn’t stop me from hitting the road the first day I had the Land Ark restored and paying more attention to waving to my neighbor than the road and center punching 2 mailboxes. That was the best lesson I’ve ever had as a driver. Being a claims adjuster was the next best but not everyone gets that chance.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I never got behind the wheel until I was old enough to have a permit.

    I’ve had countless accidents, and I’ve concluded later in life that I’m not the best driver. My weaknesses have been: recklessness, and not paying attention. I’ve never wrecked in snow, but I’m most at risk on a pleasant sunny day with my attention diverted.

    My 5 kids, though, have never been in a reportable accident, and several of them were nearly 18 when they were licensed. They are simply better citizens than I was, thankfully.

  • avatar

    I agree, Lake Shore Drive can be daunting for even experienced drivers. I grew up in suburban Chicago and like most teenage boys couldn’t wait to drive. I admit that I was driving friend’s cars long before I got my permit, but just because the kid looked young he was accompanied by an adult, so I’m sure all was legal

    Tim, you know you’re getting old when everyone under 25 looks like a little kid

  • avatar

    The kids here are a lot more obnoxious for what they drive – fart cans and awful music – than how. I’d be remiss to not also admit that I resent seeing unemployed teens in brand new luxury cars from daddy but that isn’t driving per se.

    Bad driving is 95% inconsiderate and inattentive, 5% inexperienced.

  • avatar

    Factor in the apparent age of the driver. At age 16, I could have passed for 12. On my 21st birthday the first bar I walked into refused my ID and tried to confiscate it, thinking it was fake. I was getting (for real) carded in bars until I was 36.

    Today, at 71, most acquaintances guess me for mid-50’s.

  • avatar

    I’m going through this right now My oldest son is 17 and my twins (girl and boy) are 16. My observations:

    The first time we went out my oldest was so good at driving I had to ask if his friends were teaching him or driving their cars. No was the reply and I verified by asking his friends (who are not good liars) so he has a little God-given talent. Without a lot of practice, he is probably 75% of where he needs to be.

    My daughter has asked me to go driving every chance she has including to an empty parking lot in the middle of a snow storm. I feel very comfortable with her behind the wheel she is probably 90 – 95% of where she needs to be.

    My youngest son YIKES!! Needs LOTS MORE TIME. Glad I have a beater for him to learn on and have health and life insurance! Working with him on it. But this is going to be Difficult probably 30 -40 of where he needs to be.

    The big difference: My daughter has been chomping at the bit to drive since she was 13-14 and has put the most effort into learning different skills. My boys well not so much.

  • avatar
    Funky D

    I taught both of my boys (they never did take driver’s ed). Before they got behind the wheel, I taught them about signs, road markings and such whenever we went somewhere and also would taught them to have situational awareness of their surroundings (brake lights on cars well ahead of them, drivers about to pull out of intersections, etc).

    Next, our local church had a parking lot where they could drive around in a loop and practice backing and parking. They had to master these things before I let them out in the neighborhood to cruse around for a few days. I gradually let them wander further out until they we able to drive around town. Only after all this, did I even think about letting them on the highway or in heavier traffic.

    In addition to all this, we studied bad driving/accident videos on YouTube and determined what, if anything, could be done to avoid such incidents.

    Maybe it was all overkill, but they have both managed about 4-6 years or driving without being involved in anything worse than a minor scrape.

    • 0 avatar

      This is pretty much exactly how I plan to teach my boys.

      The older one will be fine. He’s naturally cautious and doesn’t really have the speed-thrill gene. I’m really not worried about him driving.

      The younger one is going to be a nightmare. He only ever wants to go faster, and he’s gotten himself into several speed-related bike crashes already even though he’s only 4. The idea of him driving makes me feel a bit panicky even now.

      • 0 avatar
        Funky D

        Sounds like me as a student driver. Getting my license was like the green flag dropping at Daytona. I have had a leadfoot ever since. My boys are definitely more conservative than I am even now.

  • avatar

    “is age or behind-the-wheel experience more important”

    Why is it either/or?

    A teenage boy who’s been driving a farm truck since he was 10 is still a stupid teenage boy who knows no fear and thinks he will live forever. That makes him more dangerous than a 20 year old who’s only been driving a couple of years.

    • 0 avatar

      Adequate skill is a near-perfect substitute for judgement. I drive a LOT more aggressively than I did when I got my license twenty years ago, because I know I can get through that gap, that I can draft if I have my left foot hovered over the brake, that I can go as fast through the valleys as I want just so long as I’m only going five over at the crests, that the pavement’s the same on the hard shoulder (just dirtier), that rounded inside curbs will get a car to rotate. If I’d driven like that back then I would certainly have had an at-fault crash by now.

  • avatar

    You can train a kid to be a skilled driver—and that is very worth doing—but there is only so much you can do to improve a kid’s judgment. The part of kids’ brains that controls judgment is not fully mature until the early 20s.

    We’ve made a call as a society that the economic and personal benefits of having 16-year-olds drive are worth some amount of road carnage. In our society, that may be the right call. In a place where people can get around without a car more easily, I think it would be a no-braiiner to raise the driving age to 18.

    • 0 avatar

      In British Columbia we have a “graduated” system. When you turn 16 you can get a learner’s licence and be accompanied by an adult. After one year you can apply for a novice licence that allows solo driving. 24 months later if no infractions you can get a standard licence. The novice driver is restricted in number of passengers and must display an “N”.

    • 0 avatar

      Without learning how to while your brain is still developing, you’ll never get that skill deeply implanted enough into it to be any good at it.

      I can beat any karter who started after the age of 21. I have a terrible record against anyone who started before 12, despite having raced for ten years.

  • avatar

    Wait till you are pulled over by a cop you swear is too young to have a badge and gun !

  • avatar

    My daughter got her permit at 14 and a half. Spent 18 months only driving with me in the car. Got her license at 16 and got her a Tercel with a manual transmission. Going with the manual was the smartest thing I did. To this day she says she had to leave her phone alone and drive.

  • avatar

    My mother was driving by the time she was 10. She looked evey day of 18. By the time she was 12, she appeared to be 25. The local cops in Lincoln, NE all knew her, and just ignored it. Her Grandmother didn’t drive, Grandpa worked for the Burlington Railroad, and was either asleep or gone, so my mom was sent to pick up one or both of her drunk uncles at the bar down the road almost nightly.

    She learned to drive in a Model A on her uncle’s farm in South Dakota. One tme she was picking up a drunk uncle who had, as usual, lost his latest fight at the bar, and got her so rattled by trying to get out of the car at 30 MPH, she hit a parked car. No real damage, and she thought the cops would finally bust her, but the owner of the hit car was OK, and the cops just told mom to “Be careful honey!”

    I was 13 the first time I drove alone. We had a ’69 Hurst Olds loaner for a few days and when I was told to move cars around so my dad could get his car out of the garage, I went around the neighborhood a couple of times in it. It was about 2 miles or so. Never got caught.

  • avatar

    My friend’s daughter looked like she was about 10 years old when she turned 15 and started learning to drive. At 25 now, she looks about 14, but is married and a veterinarian out west. Almost as soon as she got her license, she got pulled over in all the Toledo and Detroit sububs, along with Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor Mi. Only once was it for something she did, the rest were all, “How old are you” checks.

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