It's common for people in rural parts of the U.S. to learn to drive when they’re young, sometimes before they reach their teens. News that a 13-year-old was behind the wheel of a pickup truck that blew a tire and struck a van on a dark, two-lane road in West Texas on Tuesday night, killing nine — including six members of a New Mexico college golf team and their coach — put a renewed focus on the practice, the Associated Press reports.
At a news conference on Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said the dangers of underage driving put it on the agency’s “most-wanted list.”
Along with drunk and distracted driving, Landsberg said “youthful driving” and excessive speed on rural roads are among the problems that make highway driving the most dangerous form of transit.
“Every two days we are killing the equivalent of a Boeing 737 crashing,” he said, referring to highway fatalities. “It’s long overdue that we start to do something about it.”
Cash Hogen, a 60-year-old who runs a kitchen and hardware store in Pierre, S.D., recalled learning to drive a Ford Bronco “as soon as my feet hit the pedals” – probably around age 10. He’d drive the two-track roads across his family’s ranch to repair barbed-wire fences or for other tasks.
His father always stressed safety around vehicles and told stories of horrific tragedies to drive home the danger. “Under no circumstances would I be out on a public road without my learner’s permit,” he said.
While it’s legal for people of any age to drive on private property, such as farms or ranches, public roads where others are at risk is another matter, said the AAA's William Van Tassel.
Every state has some type of graduated driver’s licensing program, by which teens as young as 14 can begin taking driver’s education classes or begin driving with an instructor or guardian. Eventually they gain more independence, being allowed to drive on their own or at night, until they have full privileges.
“Certainly in rural areas there’s a general trend of lower minimum driving ages,” Van Tassel said. “We see a lot of teen drivers have driving experience by the time they come to a formal driver’s education course because they’ve been driving trucks or tractors or other vehicles on the farm. But when it comes to public roads, the laws are pretty clear: You can’t be out there until you’re legally eligible.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there were 47 fatal crashes and 1,057 injury crashes in 2020 involving drivers 13 or younger.
In 2019, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.9 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas.