For millions of American teenagers a small piece of plastic has been an instant ticket to independence - a passport into a world of cruising, flirting, and hanging.
But for many of today's teens there's a new price to pay for the freedom that comes with a driver's license. In the case of Denver-area teen Sam Minick, the price was a hefty dose of embarrassment: Soon after getting his license, Sam racked up two speeding tickets and a fender-bender.
Before he knew it, his mom was pasting two big signs in the windows of his white Honda Civic. They blared in blocky letters, "HOW'S MY DRIVING? PLEASE REPORT ANY VIOLATIONS TO MY MOM," and listed their phone number.
Sam protested. But Mom insisted: Keep the signs up or hand over the keys. But at least there's company for Sam's misery: Across the nation, moms, state legislators, and even entrepreneurs are leading a revolution to keep teens - statistically the most dangerous group on the road - from driving recklessly. The efforts are already showing early good effects.
"We discovered the best way to improve overall safety is to improve the driving of novice drivers," says Elizabeth Duffy, who's heading the American Automobile Association's drive to pass "graduated driver licensing" programs in every state by 2001.
Around the country
Already 35 states have passed these laws in just the past several years. They impose a new regime of rules on the licensing process - and are putting an end to the days when teens walked into the DMV on their 16th birthday and got a freshly minted, full-fledged license.
In fact, teens might think these new rules take a lot of the fun out of getting a license. Some states require teens with learner's permits to have up to 50 hours of practice driving with - of all people - a parent or adult over 21.
Some ban carrying passengers under age 21, for the first six months, some ban driving at night. (The definition of "night" varies from state to state. South Carolina, for example, blocks teens from driving from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., while California prevents them from driving between midnight and 5 a.m.)
Some states also require teens to stay ticket- and accident-free for the first two years in order for the new drivers to receive their full adult licenses.
But according to AAA statistics, these new rules are just what the doctor ordered. Teens need less fun and more focus: Car crashes are the leading cause of death for their age group. Teens make up 7 percent of drivers but are involved in 14 percent of fatal crashes.
These numbers are changing in states with graduated driver licensing. A recent study of Florida teens by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found a 9 percent decline in crashes among 15- to 17-year-olds during the first year the program was in effect.
Now back to Sam. When the signs first went in, "I was pretty mad," he says. He was allowed no more than one complaint before he'd lose the keys. And he got only one - from a neighbor who saw him speeding.
After that "he became really conscious of the speedometer," says Sharon Minick, his mom. Plus, she says, "I told him that at least he has his phone number on there in case he meets any chicks."
Well, the signs didn't work as a babe magnet. In fact, Sam says strangers would pull up to him at stoplights, pointing and laughing. And when he and some friends went to a concert, they left his car behind.
Keeping tabs on teens
But Sam isn't the only teen with a phone number on his car. An Arlington, Texas-based service called 1-800-4MY-TEEN provides bumper stickers similar to those on many tractor trailers. People who see a teen driving dangerously can call the 800 number and report the license plate. When a call comes in, parents are notified.
So far 2,000 families nationwide have signed up. (Some Texas courts let teens join the service in exchange for dropping a speeding ticket.)
Founder Tom Deatz, a policeman, says "It makes kids think, 'Who's watching me?' before doing anything dangerous on the road." Mr. Deatz hopes to persuade insurance companies to lower rates for kids with the stickers.
Unlike Sam's experience, the responses to the bumper stickers haven't been all bad. In fact, there have been five times as many people calling in with compliments - such as for teens who pulled over to help stranded motorists - as with complaints. Deatz says he can screen pretty well for fake calls, such as teens calling for their friends.
A 'black box' for cars
Another potential aid in helping teens drive more safely is a tracking device made by the New Milford, Pa.-based firm EASE Diagnostics. It's like an airplane's black box for the car. It records data such as speed and time of use. So if Junior was doing 90 m.p.h. at 3 a.m., parents will know. About 100 parents have bought the $300 devices.
As for Sam, the signs in the windows - which have come off just in time for his senior year in high school - did mellow his driving. "You can't go around cutting people off," he says. And his mom says he's mature enough that, in the end, he saw the benefit.
His friends report that Sam's driving has improved.
"But," laughs Mrs. Minick, "they say they wouldn't want a mom like me."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society