From the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest to the farm region of the Great Plains and beyond, it’s not uncommon for people in rural areas of the United States to learn to drive while they’re young, often even before they reach their adolescence.
However, the news that a 13-year-old was driving a pickup truck that blew a tyre and collided with a van on a dark, two-lane road in West Texas on Tuesday night, killing nine people — including six members of a New Mexico college golf team and their coach — has rekindled interest in the practise.
At a news conference in Odessa, Texas, on Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said underage driving is on the agency’s “most-wanted list” because of the dangers it poses.
Along with drunk and distracted driving, Landsberg cited “youthful driving” and excessive speed on rural roads as issues that contribute to highway driving being the most dangerous mode of transportation in the United States.
“Every two days, we kill the equivalent of a Boeing 737 crashing,” he remarked, alluding to roadway fatalities caused by a variety of factors. “It’s long past time that we started doing something about it.”
THE LEGAL DRIVING AGE DIFFERS BY STATE.
Cash Hogen, 60, who owns a kitchen and hardware business in Pierre, South Dakota, remembers learning to drive a Ford Bronco “as soon as my feet struck the pedals” — possibly about the age of ten. He’d drive the two-track roads that went across his family’s ranch in western South Dakota to fix barbed-wire fences and perform other jobs.
However, his father always emphasised automobile safety and told stories of tragic disasters to emphasise the danger.
“I would never be out on a public road without my learner’s permit,” he stated.
While driving on private property, such as farms or ranches, is permitted for persons of any age, driving on public roadways where others are at risk is not, according to William Van Tassel, the manager of driver instruction programmes for AAA’s national headquarters.
Every state in the United States has some form of graduated driver’s licencing programme, he said, under which kids as young as 14 can begin attending driver’s education classes or begin driving with an instructor or guardian. They gradually gain more independence, such as the ability to drive alone or at night, until they have full driving privileges.
“Certainly, there’s a general tendency of lower minimum driving ages in rural places,” Van Tassel said. “A lot of young drivers have driving experience by the time they arrive to a formal driver’s education school because they’ve been driving trucks, tractors, or other farm equipment.” But when it comes to public roadways, the rules are simple: you can’t drive until you’re legally eligible.”
In 2020, there were 47 death crashes and 1,057 injury crashes involving drivers aged 13 or younger, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
In 2019, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles travelled in rural areas was 1.9 times greater than in metropolitan areas.
PERMIAN BASIN REPORTS HIGH TRAFFIC ON RURAL ROADWAYS
The reason of Tuesday’s crash in Andrews County, Texas, near the New Mexico border, remained unknown, but federal authorities said Thursday that the 13-year-old was driving a Dodge pickup on a route with a speed restriction of 75 miles per hour when its front left tyre, a spare, blew out.
The vehicle crossed the middle line and collided with an incoming transit van carrying the University of the Southwest golf team from Hobbs, New Mexico. The youngster and another man in the truck were murdered, as were members of the golf teams and their coach.
While the location is rural, the nearby oil fields of the Permian Basin, which runs from West Texas into New Mexico, mean that traffic can be anything but, according to locals.
Gib Stevens, 57, of Hobbs, is the manager of an oilfield maintenance company’s trucking operations. He stated he began driving trucks at the age of 12 on dairy farms and peaceful rural roads, but the road where the accident occurred was clearly unsafe.
“It was stupid for a 13-year-old to be driving on that road,” Stevens added. “All of these roads are used for oil trade.”
‘WORST CASE SCIENCE SCENARIO’ CRASH IN TEXAS
In Texas, the minimum age to begin classroom instruction for a learner’s licence is 14 years old, and the minimum age to acquire a provisional licence to drive with an instructor or licenced adult in the car is 15. According to Sgt. Victor Taylor of the Department of Public Safety, it is prohibited for a 13-year-old to drive on public highways.
Aside from the driver’s youth, Van Tassel highlighted that the crash occurred at night and on a road with a high speed limit when the spare tyre broke.
Furthermore, according to Cathy Chase, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, teenage boys are one of the “most dangerous groups” of the driving population across the country.
“This is a worst-case scenario above a worst-case scenario atop a worst-case scenario,” Chase explained.