Harrowing Tales Of Teenage Drivers In Everyday Traffic Amidst Adult Drivers And Those Emerging Self-Driving Cars

Adult drivers oftentimes detest teenage drivers.

This is not ostensibly a generational differences issue.

The cold hard facts are that teenage drivers are newbie drivers, and there is little question that neophyte drivers tend to make more driving mistakes than seasoned drivers. You can passionately argue whether these driving foibles are due to inexperience at the wheel, or whether they are due to the intrinsic immaturity associated with being a teenage adolescent.

Perhaps a combination of factors comes to play.

One supposes that the good news is that there aren’t as many teenage drivers as you might otherwise assume. Of the approximately 225 million driver’s licenses in the U.S., about 10 million are associated with teenagers (see my handy collection of driving-related stats at this link here). That means that less than about 5% of all drivers are teenage drivers.

Do not rest easy.

According to additional U.S. stats, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for teens is about three times as high as the rate for all other drivers that are over the age of 19.


Adding to these alarming statistics is that the fatal crash rate for those that are 16 and 17 years of age is about twice the rate of drivers that are ages 18 and 19. This suggests that the younger the driver within the drivable teenage years, the greater the relative chance of getting into a fatal car crash.

Parents that have second thoughts about their teenage offspring getting a driver’s license have an exceedingly reasonable basis for having trepidations about the matter. Parental love knows no bounds, including ensuring that their budding teenager lives to the ripe age of say twenty.

The teen is likely insisting that they are ready and eager to drive.

For teenagers, the act of driving is ostensibly a rite of passage, giving them entry into what will eventually become adulthood. There is also the sense of independence that comes from driving a car, a kind of freedom that is both imagined and altogether real. Even the seemingly banal act of being able to drive to the grocery store, on your own, can seem like a Herculean accomplishment of independence for a teen, a sensation that is unfathomable to adults that have forgotten how enthralling the driving privilege can be.

I’d be willing to bet my bottom dollar that your teen is going to say that all their peers are driving and how dare you as a parent deny them the same equity as those other teens.

This is the classic ploy to shame the parents into letting the teen be an equal among their friends and acquaintances. It certainly has a convincing ring. Apparently, the parents of those other teens made a reasoned and sound decision to let their offspring drive, thus the FOMO (fear of missing out) catches the mindset of the parent teetering on letting their teenager learn to drive.

Try it out, the logic goes, and if the teen overplays their hand while at the wheel, you can always ground them and deny them the revered parental-granted driving rights.

Here’s a stat that your teen won’t like, thus if they are reading this discussion, it is a likely guess they will try to edit out this sentence and keep you from ever seeing it: Only about one-third or statistically 34.8% of teens in the 16-to-19 age bracket have a driver’s license.

In other words, nearly two-thirds of them do not have a driver’s license.

That kind of deflates the crafty argument that since everyone else has a driver’s license, they ought to have one too.

But, since I want those teens to keep on reading, here’s a counterargument. The one-third is across all teenagers in the age 16 to 19 age bracket encompassing the entire U.S.A. In your particular town or city, it could be that the percentage is a lot higher. Furthermore, in your particular clique of friends and acquaintances, it could be nearly one hundred percent (other than your kid, of course).

Hey, teens, make sure to mention that factoid to your parents, maybe it will help bolster your case.

One crucial point to make here is that not all teens are the same.

There is a substantial difference in driving behavior among teens.

Some teens think they own the roadways. Those teens tend to drive with reckless abandon. Some teens drive while distracted, and illegally drive while intoxicated. All manner of bad driving is bound to be found amongst teens, just as similarly you can find bad driving among those drivers over the age of 19.

On the opposite extreme of the lousy teenage drivers, some teens drive quite carefully and thoughtfully. They are extremely dutiful while at the wheel. They make complete stops at stop signs. They stay back from the crosswalk when they bring their car to a halt on active streets. Traffic laws are nearly always strictly obeyed. These teens relish the driving act and will do whatever they can to keep it intact.

Each parent has to make a singular decision about driving based on the maturity of their teen.

It can be gut-wrenching, that’s for sure. Also, there are often compelling reasons to take a chance. Perhaps the only seemingly viable way for your teen to get to school or get to a job is via the use of a car and doing their own driving. Everybody has their own cost-benefit analysis to be made about whether teen driving is worth the risks involved.

Another twist, though, involves that even if a teen seems relatively mature and ready to drive, they are nonetheless still a newbie driver.

This means that they have not yet experienced the range and depth of tricky driving scenarios that more seasoned drivers have encountered. As such, the teen will have to “learn” in real-time and make split-second decisions, which could be taxing for anyone that has never logged lots of miles of driving effort, no matter what the age. In short, a teen that is a responsible person and diligent at the wheel still has the unfortunate and inarguable disadvantage of not being an experienced driver.

Sorry to say it that way, but it is true.

Swinging back over to the side favoring the teen, they can undoubtedly point at adult drivers that are seasoned and yet drive quite dangerously. That is abundantly true too. Experience alone does not mean that someone is going to drive properly. In fact, some studies suggest that the experienced driver tends to take more outsized risks while driving, under the somewhat egotistical belief that they can handle anything that the road tosses in their direction.

Experienced drivers get into car crashes, let there be no doubt about that fact.

Returning to the earlier point about adult drivers not welcoming teenage drivers (while amid everyday traffic), part of the problem entails that the teenage drivers are perceived as problematic in one of two major ways. Teen drivers either are overly cautious, crawling along at a snail’s pace and gum up the traffic or those darned no-good teens of a brazen nature are overly careless and cut off other drivers and run red lights.

Is this really a fair assessment of teenage drivers?

Some would argue that it is an unfair characterization and disproportionality overstates that there are indeed sometimes timid teenage drivers and sometimes daredevil teenage drivers. Whether it is reasonable to cast all teens into those two buckets of driving behaviors does seem a bit outlandish and a mightier-than-though phenomenon that teens would certainly suspect that adults might entertain.

Anyway, I’m not going to try and solve world hunger and nor the question of teenage driving in this particular discussion. Those are large-scale topics and deserving of their respective devoted attention.

Shifting gears, keep in mind that the future of cars consists of self-driving cars.

For AI-based true self-driving cars, there won’t be any humans at the wheel. Many are eagerly awaiting that day, partially to ease the burden on having to drive a car, and furthermore to potentially extend driving to those that today are disadvantaged when it comes to the accessibility to driving (see my column coverage about those topics for further info).

There is also a belief that the number of annual car crashes will drop precipitously, saving lives and reducing the annual heart-wrenching injuries that arise. All in all, the hope is that the advent of self-driving cars will produce a mobility-for-all outcome and be a lifesaver in a multitude of figurative and literal ways.

Some seem to think that there will be an overnight switchover to self-driving cars, as though one day we are driving human-driven cars, and suddenly the next day we all wake-up and there are only self-driving cars on our highways, streets, and byways. Right now, there are about 250 million conventional cars in the United States alone, and those are not going to disappear and be magically replaced with self-driving cars with the push of a button or any hocus-pocus.

This is an important point, and here’s why.

Human-driven cars and self-driving cars are going to be mixing together in traffic for many years to come, probably many decades. We don’t even know whether there will come a day when there won’t be conventional cars on the roadways. Some vehemently argue that you only will take away their driving privileges when you pry their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

Okay, so you hopefully get the idea that there will be human-driven cars and self-driving cars that are side-by-side while on our neighborhood streets, while on our city streets, while on our freeways, and so on. Human drivers of all ilk will be driving within traffic that also contains self-driving cars.

That means that teenagers will be driving nearby to self-driving cars too.

I’m not implying that only teenage drivers will be driving amongst self-driving cars. That doesn’t make any sense. What I am saying is that since teenage drivers are, well, car drivers, they will accordingly be on the roads and driving, doing so when self-driving cars are driving too.

Teenage drivers will need to contend with other teenage drivers, adult drivers, and now they will have the added combatant of self-driving cars. Turning that on its head, since this is a two-way street, as it were, self-driving cars also have to contend with adult drivers and with (of course!) teenage drivers.

Here is today’s mighty question: What happens when teenage drivers are amidst self-driving cars, considering the point of view of the teens and the point of view of those self-driving cars?

Great question and one worthy of some noodling over. Before we jump into the fray, let’s first clarify what I mean when referring to true self-driving cars.

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Teenage Drivers Nearby

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that today’s AI is not sentient.

In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can. I mention this aspect because many headlines boldly proclaim or imply that AI has turned the corner and become equal to human intelligence. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the outsized headlines seek to amp further the matter by contending that AI is reaching superhuman capabilities (for why the use of “superhuman” as a moniker is especially misleading and inappropriate, see my discussion at this link here).

Why this emphasis about the AI not being sentient?

Because the AI driving system has to be explicitly established programmatically to cope with human drivers, including the ranklings of teenage drivers.

And, as mentioned earlier, this is a two-way street metaphorically in that teenage drivers need to successfully cope with self-driving cars while both are driving around on our public roadways.

This brings up a somewhat lofty topic known as the theory of mind.

When you are driving a car, you are guessing about what other drivers are going to do. You have an overall semblance of what other drivers do. If you see a car ahead of you that appears to be approaching a piece of debris on the roadway, you are likely to envision that once the other driver sees the debris, the driver will take some form of evasive action.

Because you placed yourself into the shoes of the other driver, you realize that this other car might suddenly come to a stop or veer to the side, all in an attempt by the driver to avoid striking the debris. In a sense, you have a theory about the mind of that other driver.

You don’t personally know that driver (let’s assume they are a complete stranger). Nonetheless, you size-up the other driver and do so based on clues about how they are driving. Did this driver recently pump their brakes when other traffic got nearby? If so, it is perhaps a telltale clue that this particular driver is quite cautious, bordering on being overly wary.

By watching the cars around you, you try and divine what might be in the minds of those various drivers. This, in turn, allows you to make reasoned guesses about what those drivers will do. The aim of predicting their actions is especially crucial when trying to avoid getting into car crashes. We all know that a driver weaving back-and-forth is probably drunk, and therefore we can assess their state of mind, doing so without actually speaking with the person or smelling their breath directly.

Now that we’ve covered that background, consider what your theory of mind consists of for teenage drivers. As an adult driver, you likely have a templated perspective about teenage drivers, and the moment you get a glance and see that a car has a teenager at the wheel, your template gets loaded into the forefront of your driving tactics.

Similarly, if you see a car making certain kinds of motions and moves, you might suspect that the driver is a teenage driver. This becomes your default assumption at that moment, until or if something else occurs that causes you to either cement that assumption or to reject it.

What theory of mind do you have about self-driving cars and the capabilities of the AI driving system?

The answer that most people would give is that they have absolutely no clue as to what might be going on “in the mind” of the AI driving system (I loath to use the word “mindset” or anything similar when referring to AI, since anthropomorphizing AI is a bad idea, see my discussion at this link here).

Generally, most people tend to assume that an AI driving system is probably a lot like a teenage driver in many ways, such as having a timidity of driving and driving slowly (recall, that was one of the two major ways that people tend to categorize teenage drivers). People also assume that a self-driving car will be a polite driver, civil in sharing the roadway, along with always properly coming to a full stop at red lights and otherwise abiding by the stated traffic laws.

Consider this:

·        What theory of mind do teenagers have about self-driving cars?

·        What kind of programming do self-driving cars have with regard to the efforts of teenage drivers?

By-and-large, it would seem that the teenagers that I regularly interact with are about in the same headspace as the general public about self-driving cars. These teen drivers make the same assumptions that I’ve earlier mentioned.

Having seen these teens driving on the roadways where self-driving cars are traversing about (as part of the tryouts underway on our public roadways), it is apparent that the teens generally give a wide berth to the self-driving cars. When you aren’t sure what a car driver might or might not do, it seems readily sensible to try and keep sufficient separation to allow for anything at all that might transpire.

There is an old line that familiarity sometimes breeds contempt.

This is a seemingly applicable saying about drivers that get used to being around self-driving cars (see my coverage of human car drivers that are bullying self-driving cars). People that drive frequently in traffic with self-driving cars are bound to over time find themselves getting used to the driving behaviors of the AI driving systems. Since it is indeed the case that most of the AI driving systems are cautious and attempt to unerringly be law-abiding, this tends to provoke human drivers into reacting by trying to go around self-driving cars or otherwise fool self-driving cars (such as grabbing the right-of-way at a four-way stop sign).

Yes, even teens get this way too.

What is especially interesting though is that these teens say that they often get bullied by cars containing adult drivers while in traffic, or so they believe to be the case.

The teens that are the good drivers are seemingly being treated as though they are bad drivers. Perhaps this is because the proverbial bad apple in the barrel spoils the entire barrel. Maybe there are adult drivers that had foul-tasting encounters with bad teenage drivers and became conditioned to assume that all teenage drivers must be bad. Whether that is a valid concern is not significant to the adult, since the adult likely figures it is “safest” to merely assume that all teens are bad drivers and therefore be prepared for the worst-case at any time.

Unfortunately, this tends to spur the teens toward somewhat adverse and perhaps unexpected consequential actions. The teens begin to seemingly resent the bulk of adult drivers, believing that the adult drivers are taking advantage of them. This, in turn, makes the teen drivers decide to either become exaggeratingly slow and ponderous, trying to keep their distance from the offending adult drivers, or the teens decide that if you can’t beat them that you, therefore, might as well join them, meaning that the teens become aggressive drivers in a fit of survival on the roadways.

Into this melee comes the self-driving cars.

The less cynical teen drivers seem to suggest that they favor the driving tactics of self-driving cars. They find that self-driving cars are consistent and relatively predictable. Meanwhile, adults are, yes, you know it, wild and unpredictable (wait for a second, isn’t that what adults say about the teens?).

In terms of self-driving cars being programmed to cope with teenage drivers, you would be hard-pressed to have anyone indicate that they are purposely programming a specialty of the AI driving system to contend with teenage drivers. What you would hear instead is that the AI driving system is being prepared to cope with drivers that are timid or that are overbearing, and the age of the driver is immaterial to those driving antics.


For a worried parent, the aspect that your teenage driver is driving amidst self-driving cars should not alter your perception of the risks associated with driving. There is and will continue to be a plethora of adult drivers on the roads for a long time to come, and only very few self-driving cars. Thus, the preponderance of your teenager’s driving time will be among those fearsome and pesky adult human drivers.

If there were a lot of self-driving cars and only a few adult drivers, this would certainly help presumably reduce the risks for your teenage driver. Of course, a self-driving car and an AI driving system can only achieve so much. If a teenage driver were to ram into the rear-end of a self-driving car, there really isn’t much the self-driving car could have done to avoid the crash, assuming that the teen was at fault.

As a final thought for now, and one that will maybe give you some peace of mind, someday in the future there will be a sufficient prevalence of self-driving cars such that your teen won’t necessarily need to be a driver. They will instead use self-driving cars to get around. Some believe this will be a godsend, while others are worried about what will happen once teens in the driving age can go in a car and do so without any adult supervision (well, but hey, that would be the case anyway if they had a license to drive!).

Some say that teens are already starting to back away from wanting to drive. Driving is certainly a hassle. Taking a self-driving car would be a lot easier. No worries about the driving. You can play online video games during a driving journey. And so on.

I’m sure though that as a doting parent, you would insist (or urge) your teen to be working on their homework while riding in a self-driving from school or extracurricular activities. Yes, those teens already feeling saddled by their parents watching over their every action will soon discover that the time spent in a self-driving car won’t go unsupervised since the parent will likely instruct the AI system to make sure the teen is dutifully studying their algebra and classics of literature while getting a lift to wherever they might be heading.

 Hey, AI, please give those teens a break, would ya?

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