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January 25-31, 2006

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Elderly Driver

Car Culture

New-Old Driver

I've always thought insurance companies are a little like gambling operations, so they must have run the statistics and found that the new-old drivers are more likely to get in an accident

By Novella Carpenter

JUST FINISHED a two-hour phone call with my mama. She spent a spa weekend with some friends from hers from the little-children-with-diapers days. So I got the update on all my childhood friends. Ben's teaching at Dartmouth; Ethan owns a landscaping business and has two kids; Seth is a high-profile chef. We're all grown up now—but we used to play you show me yours and I'll show you mine.

Along the same lines, I get to see people I knew grow up on the press. Just the other day, I opened up The New York Times magazine and saw an acquaintance from Seattle, Samantha Shapiro, writing about finally getting her driver's license at the age of 35. Besides being jealous—why can't I write for The New York Times?—I felt scared for her, very scared. Not the danger of a new driver careening around New York City, but her sticker shock when she signs up for insurance. It'll be high.

A friend of mine, N, recently decided to take control of her life by getting a driver's license. At 33, she was a little late, but growing up in Chicago with its El train, she simply never needed to drive. But now she lives in California, and cars are, unfortunately, a way of life here. When she looked into getting insurance, it was outrageously expensive. The insurance people recommended that she get her license, keep it for two years and the rates would go down— a little bit.

Curious, I logged on to GEICO, a cheapie insurance company, and filled out quote information. I claimed that I was a single woman who drove a 2000 Acura four-door and lived in California. I said that I drive just 3,000 miles a year and accepted the basic coverage for bodily injury and property damage that GEICO suggests. The only thing I changed in three separate quotes was the age at which I obtained my driver's license.

When I plugged in that I got my driver's license in 2005, coverage was $1,894 for only six months. If I said I had my driver's license for four years, it cost $1,028 for six months. But if I had been driving since 16, insurance would cost only $673 for six months. I've always thought insurance companies are a little like gambling operations, so they must have run the statistics and found that the new-old drivers are more likely to get in an accident.

Henry Nguyen, a driving instructor at Deluxe Driving School in Mountain View, broke it down to me. "To teach an adult and a teenager to drive, there are the same basic rules," Nguyen said, "but the kids pick it up fast, and they aren't nervous. The adults are very nervous and scared." Nguyen ballparked 40 as the age at which adult drivers have difficulty learning to drive.

Looking back on my time being a 16-year-old driver, I realized that it's true that I had no fear. I went to a high school that had a class called Driver's Ed that attempted to instill great respect for the art of driving. Just the same, I got in the car and drove without thinking about the consequences of what I was doing. Once I almost pulled out into traffic and would have had a head-on collision if it weren't for the fact that I was driving a clutch car, and accidentally "killed" it.

Being lucky, though, somehow I've made it this far without a major accident. But maybe in early midlife, as I am now, if I were to just begin driving I would be worried about every consequence of my actions, so much so I would be paralyzed by the enormity of what it is to drive—and would consequently be a horrible driver. Maybe the insurance companies have a point.

In the end, my friend N decided not to get her driver's license or buy a car. She was frustrated by the auto insurance system, and two years seemed too long to wait. She slipped away from the culture that surrounds us, her options hobbled by decisions made so long ago. Go get your license!

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.