Nevertheless, the discussion in Massachusetts raises an interesting question: what is the right minimum driving age? To consider this issue, it is useful to ask what would happen if the government imposed no minimum driving age at all.
Most people assume the results would disastrous. Without a minimum legal driving age, according to this view, many young teens would drive and leave death and destruction in their wake.
I am not about to suggest that governments should repeal the minimum driving age laws. But the view that repeal would have catastrophic results is likely too pessimistic. In the absence of government-imposed minimum driving ages, two private mechanisms would constrain at least some “underage” driving.
The first mechanism is parents. Few want their 8 year olds driving the family car, for all the obvious reasons. Many parents might want, say, their 14 year old to drive the car on occasion. But most parents would allow this only under restrictive, safe circumstances, such when a parent is in the car or for a short trip to the local grocery store.
Would the discipline exercised by parents be perfect? Of course not, but it would probably not be trivial either. Parents care about their children, so many, perhaps most, would discourage unreasonable risk-taking.
The second private mechanism that would discipline teen-driving is insurance. Current laws mandate auto insurance, and most people want insurance in any case. In the absence of a minimum legal driving age, insurance companies would likely impose minimum driving ages as a condition of coverage. Or, they would charge outlandishly high rates for coverage of young teens.
The potential upside of the private approach is that it might allow for variety that does not exist under current law. For example, some insurance companies might grant coverage at reasonable rates for young teens who have taken extensive drivers’ ed, or who have passed rigorous driving tests, or who live in rural areas. This variety might produce a better balance between the benefits of a lower driving age and the cost. This is not guaranteed by any means. But neither is it guaranteed that the private approach would be worse than current policy.
Does this discussion mean I support repeal of minimum legal driving ages? No, or at least, not yet. It does make me curious about whether accident rates are substantially different in states with low minimum driving ages. And it makes me doubt that raising the minimum driving age in Massachusetts is a good idea, absent evidence that a higher age would reduce accidents enough to justify the added inconvenience to teen drivers and their families.