TO American teenagers, a driver's license represents a long-awaited passport to freedom, a symbol of maturity. Yet because factors such as speed, alcohol, and inexperience make young drivers a greater risk on the road, a family's initial celebration of this rite of passage may quickly be tempered by the harsh economic reality of steep increases in auto insurance premiums. ``Parents almost get sticker shock when they add a young driver to their policy for the first time,'' says John Cook, a senior vice president at United Services Automobile Association (USAA) in San Antonio, Texas.
As one way of encouraging teens to be responsible behind the wheel, USAA has just published the first issue of Under 25, a 16-page magazine designed to educate young adults about cars and driving. The first issue went out last month to all 16- to 22-year-old dependents of USAA insurers.
``We want to talk to them about speeding, but not in a patronizing way,'' Mr. Cook says, offering one example of the kind of safety-related topics the magazine will cover. ``They just have this feeling they're invincible. We have to try to convince them - but not by using hackneyed phrases like `Speed kills' - that 5 or 10 miles an hour can make a huge difference in terms of the physics of a crash.''
The first issue - there will be two in 1990, three next year, then four in 1992 - contains articles on what to do if a policeman pulls a driver over, how to establish a good credit rating, and the dangers of marijuana.
Early response has been positive, according to Lisa Severson, an editorial assistant. Already, 5,000 recipients have returned response cards, with many saying they wish the magazine were bigger.
The magazine comes at a time when issues affecting young drivers are heating up in several states. In Indiana, a national anti-discrimination group, the National Clearinghouse for Ending Sex Discrimination in Insurance, is calling for the state legislature to ban sex discrimination in auto insurance rates. There, as in many states, insurance companies use both gender and marital status as factors in setting auto insurance rates for drivers under the age of 25.
Stephen Williams, president of the Insurance Institute of Indiana, explains the industry's method of setting rates.
``Insurance is based on a concept of fair discrimination,'' he says, and involves pooling risks. ``The simple fact is that Young women are involved in significantly fewer accidents - particularly fatal ones - than young men, and rates reflect that.'' Not all agree.
``What rates ought to be based on is miles driven, years driven, and driving record,'' says Michealle Wilson, executive director of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association in Indianapolis. ``I think there's no such thing as `fair discrimination.'''
Ms. Wilson uses her own family to illustrate her point. ``I have a 19-year-old son. If he doesn't drive very many miles, and if he has a clean driving record, taking into consideration that he's only been driving three years, why should he pay higher rates than a girl with a crummy driving record who's also only been driving three years?'' Then, going beyond hypothetical situations to one close to home, she adds, ``He has a stepsister who has had three wrecks, and he pays a higher rate than she does.''
Not all the news involving young drivers is negative. Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that fatal accidents involving drivers under 21 declined 12 to 13 percent when states raised the minimum drinking age to 21. Between 1975 and 1989, the agency reports, an estimated 9,300 lives were saved by raising the minimum drinking age to 21, with about 1,150 lives saved in 1988 alone.
Statistics like these, showing that safe, sober driving habits pay off, are part of the message Cook hopes to communicate to youthful readers of his fledgling magazine. Very often, he acknowledges, drivers under 25 feel beleaguered by higher insurance rates and negative stereotypes about young drivers.
``They can feel helpless,'' he notes. ``They say, `I'm being underwritten on the basis of people who are my age and share my driving patterns.' But we say, `You can avoid getting tickets. You can be aware of where you park your car and whether you lock it. There are things you can do - it's not beyond your control.'''