Drive-By Journalism

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To grasp the appalling meanness of the American Automobile Association’s latest media attack on teenagers, consider the tragedy of Travis Bosse. He is one of the “26,990 drivers between ages 15 and 17” castigated in a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety for “being involved in ... fatal crashes that claimed the lives of 30,917 people” from 1995 through 2004.

How did Bosse contribute to the AAA’s killer-teen numbers? The Redding, Calif., 17-year-old died in April 2004 when his car was crushed by a truck careening at 75 miles per hour. The truck driver, Stephen Long, 46, sported three past license suspensions and a hefty 0.12 percent blood-alcohol level.

By AAA’s twisted logic, Bosse (driving sober, safely and seat-belted) victimized the drunken, speeding Long. To maximize its demonization of teens, the report, “Teen Crashes: Everyone Is at Risk,” effectively blames under-18 drivers for every fatal wreck they were “involved in,” no matter the circumstances.

AAA’s junk study, and the authorities and reporters worshipping it, exposed a rising, lynch-mob hostility against young people that shreds scientific and journalistic ethics. Teen drivers, AAA screamed, kill “husbands, mothers, brothers, children, and grandmothers. ... Everyone is at risk.”

Experts, while demeaning the adolescent thought process and lavishly praising the mature brains of adults, lambasted teens as “reckless,” “stupid,” “irrational,” “crazy,” even “alien.” The driving age must be raised to 18, 21, perhaps even 25, they raged. People under 25 shouldn’t even be allowed to vote, declared Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health. Not quoted were any of the many experts who uphold teens’ competence and doubt that neuroimagings predict real-world behaviors.

This crude bully-fest demonstrates sophisticated, grown-up reasoning? In the dozens of mindlessly conformist, one-sided news stories I reviewed, not one reporter or expert raised an obvious question: Did teens cause all the crashes they were “involved in”?

So, I downloaded federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) records of all 101,000 Californians involved in 38,000 fatal traffic crashes from 1995 through 2004. Even incomplete police records show that in half the collisions between teen drivers and those over 21, the adults were driving improperly. Adult drivers were three times as likely as youths to have drugs or alcohol in their systems.

Drivers ages 21 to 44, in particular, caused accidents that killed twice as many 15- to 17-year-olds as the other way around. In traffic collisions in which the guilty driver was intoxicated, teen drivers killed 66 adults; drivers over 21 killed 208 teens.

Mature grown-ups with developed cerebral cortexes should be able to honestly acknowledge that adults present serious dangers to adolescents and to objectively weigh risks. But precious little grown-up maturity or logic graced AAA’s vicious report and hysterical media images.

Experts and reporters never bothered to quantify the real-life teenage traffic risk, so here it is: Data from the National Household Travel Survey and FARS show the average teen driver suffers one fatal crash per 15 million miles driven. If a teen and a middle-aged driver (the safest grown-up age) each drives from Los Angeles to Boston and back 5,000 times, the teen driver would cause, on average, one more traffic fatality and three more serious injuries.

That’s the teen-adult risk gap motivating AAA and various experts into ugly stereotyping and sweeping demands for stripping rights from youth.

No expert mentioned that reducing youth poverty could sharply reduce what experts mistakenly call “teenage risk.” Teens in California’s poorest counties are twice as likely to cause deadly traffic crashes as are teens in its richest counties. Where teens are as affluent as middle-agers, teens experience no more roadway dangers than middle-agers.

If AAA and safety experts are lusting to ban entire demographics from driving, why not ban men? Per mile driven, men cause 77 percent more fatal crashes (including four times more drunken killings) than women do. Replacing male with female drivers could save 10,000 lives per year.

Lowering the blood-alcohol content (BAC) standard for drunken driving from today’s lenient 0.08 percent to 0.04 percent – as Europeans have done and former U.S. Surgeon General Everett Koop endorses – could save thousands of lives. Adults with legal BACs of 0.05 percent to 0.07 percent are five times as deadly as sober drivers.

Naturally, none of today’s politically attuned experts proposes saving lives by curbing adults’ right to party conveniently. No wonder American drivers have fallen from ranking first among Western nations in safety per mile driven in 1970 to an abysmal 18th today.

The most frightening aspect of the AAA-expert-media tirade against young people was its hostile “us vs. them” tone. Teens victimizing adults is an outrage that must be stopped, it demanded. But drunken, reckless adults victimizing thousands of teens is of no political importance. Not even worth mentioning.