Drive-By Journalism

Mike Males, Youth Today, April 2006


            To grasp the appalling meanness of the American Automobile Association’s latest media attack on teenagers, consider the tragedy of Travis Bosse--one of the “26,990 drivers between ages 15 and 17” the AAA’s “Teen Crashes: Everyone Is at Risk” report castigated for “being involved in...fatal crashes that claimed the lives of 30,917 people” from 1995 through 2004.

            How did Bosse make the AAA’s killer-teen list? The Redding, California, 17 year-old died on April 10, 2004, when his car was crushed by a truck careening at 75 miles per hour. The truck driver, Stephen Long, age 46, sported three past license suspensions and a hefty 0.12 percent blood-alcohol reading.

            By AAA’s twisted logic, Bosse (driving sober, safely, and seat-belted) victimized the drunken, speeding Long. To maximize their demonization of teens, AAA effectively blamed under-18 drivers for every fatal wreck they were “involved in,” no matter the circumstances.

            AAA’s junk study, and the authorities and media 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 (demeaning adolescent thinking and lavishly praising their own mature, adult brains) lambasted teens as “reckless,” “stupid,” “irrational,” “crazy,” even “alien.” The driving age must be raised to 18, 21, perhaps even 25, they raged. Persons under 25 shouldn’t even be allowed to vote, Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health declared. None of the many experts who uphold teens’ competence and doubt that neuroimagings predict real-world behaviors was quoted.

            This crude bully-fest demonstrates sophisticated, grownup 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 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 and adult drivers over age 21, the adults were driving improperly. Adult drivers were three times more likely than youths to have drugs or alcohol in their systems.

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

            Mature grownups with developed cerebral cortexes should be able to honestly acknowledge that adults present serious dangers to adolescents and objectively weigh risks. But precious little grownup maturity or logic graced the 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: National Household Travel Survey and FARS data show the average teen driver suffers one fatal crash per 15 million miles driven. If a teen and a middle-ager (the safest grownup age) each drive 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 the AAA’s and experts’ ugly stereotyping and sweeping demands for stripping youth rights.

            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 than teens in its richest. 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 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.

            Toughening the BAC standard for drunken driving from today’s lenient 0.08 percent to 0.04 (as Europeans and former Surgeon General Everett Koop endorse) could save thousands of lives. Adults with a legal BAC’s of 0.05 to 0.07 percent are five times deadlier than sober drivers.

            Naturally, none of today’s politically-attuned experts propose curbing adults’ right to party conveniently just to save lives. No wonder American drivers have fallen from the safest per mile driven in 1970 to an abysmal 18th among Western nations today.

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


Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco, and teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.