Most people know I’ve worked with Ralph Nader as an auto consumer advocate for the past 30 years. Fewer people realize, though, that I also once worked the night shift as an emergency room medical technician and ambulance driver with the 508th Airborne during my three-year Army stint in Panama in the early 60s.
I picked up dead and crippled young drivers and their passengers, shared parents’ grief, and saw families torn apart, following so-called automobile “accidents” that were no accident. That’s right. Poor choices, not happenstance, injured and killed these young people.

As the well-known safety researcher Robert Haddon noted in his “highway safety matrix” developed over three decades ago, driving-educated — but emotionally immature — young drivers, poor vehicle design, booby-trapped highways, and inadequate trauma care, all continue to this day to add to the carnage on our roadways.

Hence, the launching of Teen Lemon-Aid 2003, a safety guide and buyer’s manual for the first-time driver.

Resource Guide For Teen Drivers And Their Parents
Check out this excellent teen-driving site from WRAL television in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Unlike previous guides, Teen Lemon-Aid 2003 rates vehicles primarily for their safety (crashworthiness and safety features). Next, we look at overall reliability and performance, repair and insurance costs, and which vehicles get a “cool” rating among young people (minivans need not apply).

We admit to a bias toward used vehicles bought from private sellers or handed down by family members. We also list sales scams to avoid, tips on cutting insurance costs, how to do your own minor repairs and choose performance-enhancing options, and use “cyber-complaining” effectively to get your money back. In our “Beaters and Chick Magnets” section, we rate dirt-cheap older vehicles that are reasonably safe, reliable and attractive.

Teen Lemon-Aid 2003 will provide constructive elements to the inevitable “first car” debate between parents and teens and, hopefully, attenuate the anxiety we all feel as the keys are handed over to our children.

Young Drivers Drive “Cool” Cars
In researching this year’s Teen Lemon-Aid, I met last February with a group of several hundred Kitchener high school students and teachers at Grand River C. I. and spoke with-Dwayne Shouldice, a former General Motors electrical system expert, who’s now an automotive instructor in that school’s Technical Department.
He showed me the Department’s impressive array of automotive diagnostic equipment and on-going repair projects. Shouldice believes that most unsatisfactory repairs can be traced to service advisers who write up incomplete work orders, omitting many details of the problem and its symptoms that would help mechanics to quickly and competently fix a problem. His suggestion: customers MUST ensure that the work order contains all the details relating to their car’s failure.

The meeting with students was particularly instructive to me because I learned that young drivers often have better vehicles than their teachers and also know a lot more than most owners about the maintenance and performance of the vehicles they own. Some of the cars most students found “cool” that were parked in the school student parking lot:

Ford Escort, Mustang, and Probe
GM Camaro/Firebird, Cavalier/Sunfire, and Grand Am
Honda Civic and Accord
Mazda 323, MX-3 Precidia and MX-6
Nissan Altima
Toyota Corolla and Celica
VW Golf/Jetta
Out of respect for the faculty, I won’t go into what the teachers were driving, although I do urge pay increases for them all.
Nevertheless, I was impressed that almost all of the student cars were well-maintained, slightly modified, older models that had been recommended by Lemon-Aid over the past several decades.

Someone’s teaching these students well.

Canada’s Most Dangerous Drivers?: Your Grandparents
Here’s a statistic that will floor you: according to Canadian traffic fatality studies carried out by the Urban Futures Institute, young males no longer head the annual traffic fatality lists. Instead, the demographic is led by elderly men, followed by young men; and elderly women, followed by young women. In fact, one study reported by the National Post’s Mark Hume found “the accident rate among those over 65 is three times higher than for adults aged 36 to 65.”

And guess what? The early Baby Boomers born in 1938 will turn 65 next years. Yikes! Andrew Wister, a professor of Gerontology at Simon Fraser University isn’t surprised at the increasing number of older drivers involved in traffic accidents. He sees the problem as a U-shaped curve with the elderly and the young holding up each end. Now before we all cite the safety establishment mantra of driver education for the young and eyesight testing for older drivers, let’s look at the real reasons why these groups of drivers are such risks.

First of all, they are both in denial. “I’ve never had an accident. I know how to drive. I scored well on my written exam.”

All rationalizations that cover up the real problem: young drivers know how to drive, but they are often too immature to apply what they’ve learned. And old drivers know how to drive, but their cognitive functions (how they process information) and other physical impairments, prevent them from applying what they’ve learned and practiced for years. In fact, most Canadian provinces don’t require a medical examination before 75 or 80 years of age.

Turning loose a young or old driver on the streets without any restrictions is courting disaster. Restrictions should be taken away as young drivers improve their driving ability and become more mature; restrictions should be added as older drivers’ skills and physical abilities deteriorate.

Although most safety researchers see their utility, license restrictions targeting drivers over 65 will be slow in coming. Older drivers need their vehicles to remain active in their families and communities and will use their political muscle to block legislation that threatens their mobility — no matter if they sometimes mistake the gas pedal for the brakes or tend to park “by ear.”

Young drivers, lacking similar political clout, have borne the brunt of licensing reform and are subject to graduated licensing throughout Canada. As they mature and remain accident-free, the restrictions are removed. This approach has been effective in bringing down the accident rate for young drivers. In fact, the impact of the graduated driver-licensing program in Nova Scotia has exceeded most researchers’ expectations, says the Canadian Traffic Injury Research Foundation:

A series of increasingly refined analyses, which controlled for the influence of other explanatory variables, all showed that the implementation of graduated licensing in Nova Scotia was associated with a significant reduction in collisions. There was a substantial decrease in collisions involving 16 year-old drivers and casualty collisions following the introduction of the graduated licensing program. This was evident in the initial year of the program and across its first three years of operation. Pre-post comparisons showed that the total collisions in 1995-the first full year of the graduated licensing program was in effect-were 24% lower than they were in 1993. Collisions in 1996 were 36% lower than in 1993. Time series analyses showed that collisions decreased by 37% during the first three years of the program. Comparable decreases occurred in casualty crash ratios. Improvements were also observed for all novice drivers not just those who are young. The collision rate for all novice drivers dropped by 19.4%, from a rate of 1,418.9 per 10,000 learners in 1993 to 1,143 in 1995.

Politicians need to apply similar graduated licensing to older drivers. Not only is it a question of fairness, it’s also just plain common sense.