From the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest to the farm country of the Great Plains and beyond, it’s not uncommon for people in rural parts of the U.S. to learn to drive when they’re young, sometimes even before they reach their teens.
But the news that a 13-year-old was behind the wheel of a pickup truck that blew a tire and struck a van on a dark, two-lane road in West Texas on Tuesday night, killing nine people — including six members of a New Mexico college’s golf teams and their coach — put a renewed focus on the practice.
At a news conference in Odessa, Texas, on Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said the dangers of underage driving put it on the agency’s “most-wanted list.” Investigators have not yet said why the teen was behind the wheel before the crash, which also killed him and a 38-year-old man in the truck.
Along with drunk and distracted driving, Landsberg said “youthful driving” and excessive speed on rural roads are among the problems that make highway driving the most dangerous form of transit in the United States.
“Every two days we are killing the equivalent of a Boeing 737 crashing,” he said, referring to highway fatalities from multiple causes. “It’s long overdue that we start to do something about it.”
Legal driving age varies by state
Cash Hogen, a 60-year-old who runs a kitchen and hardware store in Pierre, South Dakota, recalled learning to drive a Ford Bronco “as soon as my feet hit the pedals” — probably around age 10. He’d drive the two-track roads across his family’s ranch in western South Dakota to repair barbed-wire fences or for other tasks.
But his father always stressed safety around vehicles and told stories of horrific tragedies to drive home the danger.
“Under no circumstances would I be out on a public road without my learner’s permit,” he said.
While it’s legal for people of any age to drive on private property, such as farms or ranches, public roads where others are at risk is another matter, said William Van Tassel, the manager of driver training programs for AAA’s national office.
Every U.S. state has some type of graduated driver’s licensing program, by which teens as young as 14 can begin taking driver’s education classes or begin driving with an instructor or guardian, he said. Eventually they gain more independence, being allowed to drive on their own or at night, until they have full privileges.
“Certainly in rural areas there’s a general trend of lower minimum driving ages,” Van Tassel said. “We see a lot of teen drivers have driving experience by the time they come to a formal driver’s education course because they’ve been driving trucks or tractors or other vehicles on the farm. But when it comes to public roads, the laws are pretty clear: You can’t be out there until you’re legally eligible.”
According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, there were 47 fatal crashes and 1,057 injury crashes in 2020 involving drivers 13 or younger.
In 2019, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.9 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas.
Permian Basin sees heavy traffic on rural roads
The cause of Tuesday’s crash in Andrews County, Texas, near the New Mexico border, wasn’t clear, but federal authorities said Thursday that the 13-year-old was driving a Dodge pickup on a road with a 75 mph speed limit when its front left tire, a spare, blew out.
The truck veered across the center line into an oncoming transit van carrying the golf team from the University of the Southwest, in Hobbs, New Mexico. The boy and a man in the truck with him were killed, along with members of the golf teams and their coach.
While the area is rural, the surrounding oil fields of the Permian Basin that crosses from West Texas into New Mexico mean the traffic can be anything but, local residents said.
Gib Stevens, 57, of Hobbs, leads trucking operations for an oilfield servicing company. He said he himself started driving trucks at age 12 on dairy farms and quiet farm roads, but he said the road where the accident happened was clearly unsafe.
“For a 13-year-old to be driving that road, that was dumb,” Stevens said. “These roads are all oil traffic.”
'Worst-case scenario' in Texas crash
In Texas, one must be 14 to begin classroom instruction for a learner’s license and 15 to receive that provisional license to drive with an instructor or licensed adult in the vehicle. Department of Public Safety Sgt. Victor Taylor said it would be illegal for a 13-year-old to drive on public roads.
Van Tassel noted that the crash involved several risk factors besides the youth of the driver: It happened at night and on a road with a high speed limit when the spare blew.
Further, teenage boys are one of “the most dangerous segments” of the driving population across the country, said Cathy Chase, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
“This is a worst-case scenario, on top of a worst-case scenario, on top of a worst-case scenario,” Chase said.