Teen Driver Safety Week – A Practical Interlude

Notable advocates of teen driver safety argue compellingly that teenagers drive unsafely because they lack experience. To protect teen drivers–and everyone on the road–therefore, authorities have stipulated rules intended to mitigate the effects of inexperience. In theory, deferring to these rules, rather than acting on impulse (as experienced drivers do), will make teenagers safer drivers. –Until they have experience, that is, whereupon they will supposedly drive safely anyway.

Of course, we would never discourage teen drivers from following the rules, nor dissuade parents from insisting on them before handing their teenaged children the keys. They are good rules, absolutely, based on experts’ sound assessments of empirical fact. Nonetheless, we would suggest that the rhetoric of “inexperience” oversimplifies the situation in a potentially counterproductive manner. Namely, it undermines parents’ ability to communicate the rules’ value to their teenaged children–which parents should want to do, since internalizing that value would enable their teenaged children deftly to intuit serious dangers on the road. That’s how one develops wisdom, after all: by intuition. And, wisdom is what teen drivers really need. That’s what experience is for; it’s simply a reliable (and intersubjective) means to wisdom.

Sympathy, then, is the key to effective communication–authentic sympathy–which oversimplification precludes. But, how do we sympathize with teenagers, if we suppose them to lack experience, the only ground on which separate subjectivities can possibly meet? Consider the following: Teenagers are actually quite experienced–only that their experience is not conducive to safe driving. One must study the experience they have (not the experience they could or should have) in order to sympathize authentically.

Qualities of fiction color teenagers’ experience, which, therefore, wrongly (or impractically) conditions their expectations. Rather than pertaining to what we might naively call “reality,” the experience they have pertains to a construct, which we expediently call the “teenage aesthetic.” In lieu of practical schemata whereby to interpret sensory information, nevertheless determined to act with purpose, teenagers act to realize an ideal of beauty according to this aesthetic.

They expect certain performances to issue in certain tropical narrative patterns. They expect structure in life, but structure aligned with convention, not causality. For example, driving fast characterizes a boy as a rebel. Naturally, being a character of that type affords him to seduce a particular girl. Even when the girl isn’t watching him drive, yet he must drive fast–indeed, he must be a character of that type in order to live the dramatic arc conventionally associated therewith. He must act out his role, as if begging the applause of some all-seeing, if tasteless, deity.

As an experienced driver, no doubt, you put away such fantastic notions long ago. Remember, though, that the teenage aesthetic really does affect teenagers’ behavior. They actually believe life unfolds (or should unfold) by the logic of poetry. And, if you think about it, that belief isn’t so strange: before the advent of science, the generality of mankind believed similarly.

You don’t have to be a teenager to know something about the teenage aesthetic–and, most important, to predict how it will condition a teenager’s expectations. Watch The Wonder Years or read something by S.E. Hinton and you will get a fairly good conception of it. Ask yourself, “What would someone who sees beauty herein believe he should do to realize that ideal himself?”

Above all, though, the next time you tell your teenaged children to “drive safely,” consider why they might drive unsafely to start with, and understand that it’s not just a matter of inexperience; rather, it’s a matter of aesthetics. Sympathize: Try to work traffic safety into the framework of the drama in which they believe they are acting. Make traffic safety a thing of beauty. If they perceive traffic safety as beautiful, they will accept it in principle; if they accept it in principle, they will value it; if they value it, they will follow the rules; and, if they follow the rules, they will stay safe.