Is “car craziness” a menace to our teenagers?

A third of a million Canadian youngsters are driving and hundreds more are learning every day. How is the auto affecting their health, their school grades, their morals? Here’s what parents, teachers, police and community leaders say about this controversial question

ERIC HUTTON June 6 1959

Is “car craziness” a menace to our teenagers?

A third of a million Canadian youngsters are driving and hundreds more are learning every day. How is the auto affecting their health, their school grades, their morals? Here’s what parents, teachers, police and community leaders say about this controversial question

ERIC HUTTON June 6 1959

Is “car craziness” a menace to our teenagers?

A third of a million Canadian youngsters are driving and hundreds more are learning every day. How is the auto affecting their health, their school grades, their morals? Here’s what parents, teachers, police and community leaders say about this controversial question


Never has there been such a mass love affair as the current infatuation of the male teenager for the automobile.

Recently several Canadian teenagers were asked: “What do you and your friends discuss most?” Cars topped all other subjects. Girls were second by several lengths.

"Girl-talk is good for about twenty minutes,” explained one seventecn-year-old. “But we never run out of car-talk.” Sports placed third. The boss and the job, or the teacher and schoolwork, came fourth.

"A rather fantastic proportion” of oral classroom sessions — in which students chose their own topics — concerns automobiles,^ says a

teacher at the Alderwood, Ont., collegiate. “Even when they start with another subject they manage to get around to cars.” she added, “and it’s hard to stop them for anything so dull as English or maths.”

A best seller among the hundreds of scripts offered for school dramatic productions by Samuel French Ltd., publishers, is A Young Man’s Fancy, a play about the tribulations of teenagers in getting their parents' cars for dates. It now tops such solid old favorites as Charley’s Aunt and Getting Gertie's Garter.

Growmups recognize, in an offhand sort of way, that “kids are crazy about cars.” They know, from w'hat’s happening in their own fam-

ilics, from encounters in traffic, from glimpsing car-cluttered streets around some schools that a large number of youngsters own cars or use the family sedan regularly.

An estimated 350,000 Canadian teenagers are licensed to drive. Three out of four of them are boys, but boys dominate the picture even more than that ratio would indicate. Girls drive mostly with their parents along: only a few own a car or drive to school or get the family car for dates.

Most parents worry to some extent when their offspring arc out in cars. Understandably, they worry about damage or injury to car and contents — dented

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What does a car give them? Prestige, popularity, a sense of power—aí

fenders, broken bones, fatal smashups. They worry, too. about what unchaperoned boys and girls may be up to. But the motoring teenager has become much more than a family problem.

In the past few years as youth-at-thewheel has become a major phenomenon of Canadian life, a lot of other people have become concerned about much wider implications they attach to the apparently simple act of a teenage boy driving a car.

Police view with alarm the truly gaudy record of teenagers as trafiic hazards and accident causers. They also fear that the almost inevitable encounters with law-enforcement officers may tend to make teenagers, at that impressionable age, regard police as their natural enemies.

Many teachers regard teenagers' preoccupation with cars as a menace to their education.

Sports officials, physical-fitness authorities and doctors deplore the influence of the automobile on teenagers’ agility and even their health.

Psychologists paint the gloomiest picture of all. Some of them warn that the teenager's car. as the chief symbol of soft living, may debase him mentally, physically, spiritually and morally to the point where, like the enervating public baths of ancient Rome,

it leads to the decline and fall of the nation.

Whatever the car is doing to or for the teenager, one thing is certain: it's doing it at a greatly accelerated pace. Canada’s bumper crop of wartime and postwar baby boys are now' reaching the licensable age at the record rate of one hundred and fifty thousand a year. At the same time, carowning families are increasing at the rate of ninety thousand a year, and now number 2.200,000. Every year twenty thousand more Canadian families acquire a second car — and that's one of the two most usual ways for a teenager to get regular use of a car. T he other is outright ownership, which adds up to another 100.000 cars.

When Canadian High News, a national student publication, asked teenage boys across Canada. "Can you drive a car?” three out of four of those old enough to be eligible for a driving license answered "yes” and ninety-six percent of the rest expected to be driving within three years.

Amid much controversy over teenage driving, the one group that remains serene, if embattled, is the teenagers themselves. "We like cars." is the nutshell of their defense.

They can understand and even applaud two of their number who recently made gestures of defiance against adult disapproval:

the Stratford, Ont., youth w'ho quit school when police tagged his car on the street repeatedly and his application for parking space in the school grounds was turned down; and sixteen-year-old Richard Machines. of Ajax. Ont., who was informed that he must no longer drive his tw'enty-five-dollar car and that police were on their way to confiscate it. Richard took a sledge hammer to his beloved jalopy and mournfully reduced it to scrap.

Here are the major aspects of teenage driving, as seen by people who are studying the phenomenon — or who have had it thrust upon their attention:

Accident record: The fact that teenage drivers are poor accident risks is w idely known, mostly because of the premiums charged by automobile-insurance companies. Most don't want to insure teenagers at any price. But provincial governments say in effect. "If we see fit to license a person, you must insure him if he applies.”

So the insurance companies take refuge in an "assigned risk” plan which charges high premiums and pools the risk among all the companies. In the eyes of insurance men most teenagers, even those with accidentfree records, belong in the same category as adults convicted of impaired driving, or w ith

ty educators, poor grades

bad accident records or major disabilities.

"In fact,” said one insurance executive, "a man who has lost his left leg and drives a car with automatic transmission pays a smaller premium than a teenager who has never had an accident. That's how bad a risk we consider them.”

Teenagers who escape the "assigned risk” penalty are usually those whose family background is known to the underwriter to be dependable. The decision is up to the insurance company.

After what insurance companies call “a bad loss year" under-age drivers find it harder than ever to stay out of the assignedrisk category. Last year in British Columbia nearly four thousand of them were placed in this class, double the number of the year before and close to three times the number in 1956. "When the accident figures go up the companies try to weed out poor risks in order to stay solvent,” explained Ken Malthouse. manager of B. C.’s assigned-risk plan.

The dollars-and-cents story is even more graphic. In Toronto the minimum publicliability policy (twenty thousand dollars for injury claims in one accident, five thousand dollars for property damage) costs an adult accident - free driver thirty - two dollars a year. If his young son also drives the car, the premium is fifty-

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Teenagers do well in driving tests, “but what they do when they’re on their own is something else”

four dollars. If the youth drives his own car, the policy costs seventy-eight dollars. When the company decides the driver is an assigned risk the premium rises another three dollars. Those premiums are based, of course, on accident

statistics, and the insurance companies contend they are actually being generous.

Last year Ontario’s 112,000 teenage drivers piled up accidents at the rate of nearly eleven for every million miles they drove. Drivers aged forty-five to

forty-nine were involved in just over one and a half accidents per million miles.

In Manitoba, every hundred teenage drivers were involved in an average of nine accidents last year, compared with five and a half accidents among every

hundred drivers aged thirty-five to fortyfour. And those figures do not take into account the fact that the older group drove nearly twice the annual mileage of the youngsters, and therefore had a greater exposure to potential accidents.

In British Columbia, teenage drivers are only one twelfth the driving population, but they make up more than a quarter of the drivers whose licenses were suspended for major violations.

The real tragedy of the teenagers’ bad driving record is that it is not caused by an inability to drive well. Traffic-safety experts point out, with some exasperation, that teenagers’ sight, muscular coordination and reflexes are at their peak. Driving-school operators testify that teenage boys learn the techniques of driving in half as many lessons as older persons. In Ontario’s driving tests, more teenagers pass at first try than do older candidates.

"But then they're on their best behavior to pass the test,” said one official. "What they do when they get the permit and drive off on their own is something else.”

Girls have good records

Youthfulness alone does not make drivers accident-prone. Teenage girls, for example, have very low accident records (lower even than their fathers or grandfathers). In Ontario teenage girls make up nearly two percent of all licensed drivers but are involved in fewer than one percent of accidents. Male teenagers number just over five percent of all drivers but get into more than twelve percent of the accidents.

Insurance companies rate a sixteenyear-old girl as more than twice as safe a driver as a man of twenty-four. Girls are not charged extra premiums, but males under twenty-five are lumped with teenage boys as undesirable risks, except that they are seldom relegated to the most costly (assigned risk) category unless their individual driving records deserve it.

The formula for recklessness, then, appears to be male-plus-youth. This is borne out by accident statistics, which show that male drivers are involved in fewer and fewer accidents as they get older.

The diagnosis of reckless driving, most investigators now agree, can be pinpointed in one word: immaturity. And there is strong evidence that maturity, in the form of safe driving habits and attitudes, can be taught to teenagers by such means as high-school driving courses and organized car clubs that devote a great deal of time to “brain-washing” members into safe driving attitudes.

In Manitoba, graduates of driving courses in three high schools were found to have an accident rate one eighth that of the average driver in the province. In British Columbia graduates of highschool driving courses had an accident rate of twenty-seven per thousand drivers, compared with sixty-nine for all B.C. drivers.

School grades: Perhaps the most startling survey in a survey-ridden world was carried out this year by principal Willis Nelson of Madison High School, in Rexburg, Idaho. He studied the scholastic grades of senior students over a four-yeai period and found:

Not one A-average student drove a car to school, but cars were driven by fifteen percent of B-average students; forty-one percent of C-average students; seventyone percent of D-average students; and eighty - three percent of students w ho failed.

Nelson reported his findings to parentteacher groups, the school board, town council and other civic groups. Campaigns were launched to stop students from driving to school. Parents signed pledges to support the movement. Ministers preached sermons on the subject. In a few weeks Nelson reported that student driving had been reduced "drastically" and scholastic averages had risen.

About the same time principal Edwin Anderson of the high school at Prosser. Wash., made a similar survey and found a similar correlation between driving and school grades.

"When I was in grade eleven at Bathurst Heights Collegiate.” one suburban Toronto girl recalls, “there were five boys who owned cars and five who had to repeat their year—the same five.”

Principal William J. Houston of North Toronto Collegiate suggested that, rather than cars making poor students, poor students acquire cars to get prestige.

But Robert J. Cochrane, principal of Winnipeg's Kelvin High School, in upperincome River Heights, disagrees. He says student driving has "a detrimental eflect on academic standings, even with good students." The student driver. Cochrane says, is likely to be used by his friends as a means of transportation to sport and social events, and his homework usually suffers. He may also wuistc much of his spare time tinkering with his car.

A boy who made excellent grades tit high school in Vancouver moved to Toronto with his parents, bought a car and failed twice. Faced with ineligibility for university, he sold his car (to a wrecking yard for twenty-five dollars) and caught up with his lost studies in a year of intensive work.

Not all boys misuse car ownership, of course. In every school there arc boys who use cars exactly as adults do — as essential transportation during the week and for pleasure on weekends and holidays.

One teenager suggests that cars have another advantage: "Were living in a

technological age. Surely a kid wrho fools around with a car will make a better engineer or technician than one who gets As in academic subjects."

But educators don't agree. Dean R. R. McLaughlin of the University of Toronto's faculty of engineering says: "We're alw'ays hearing about boys who love to take things apart and therefore should make good engineers. But that's a superficial skill, not likely to be related to the qualities that make a good engineer."

An enthusiastic car-tinkerer might well

make a good technician. But the typical teenage driver doesn't qualify. A department head of one of Canada's largest technical schools says: "I was amazed when I came from England to teach mechanical technology how few Canadian boys with cars knew' or cared what went on under the hood. Most of them are more interested in what the car can do for them than in what they can do for the car."

Physical fitness: When the Canadian

Sports Advisory Council, representing

Canada's sports governing bodies, sent an urgent brief to the federal government asking for action to counter "a truly dangerous trend in the physical development of Canadians.” it had this to say: "The motor car. which has taken people off their feet, has been far from good from a physical standpoint. We all know what can happen to a strong man’s muscles when put in a cast for a few weeks. The mechanical age has been putting Canadians, particularly our youth, in the cast of physical inactivity for too long. Our international reputation in

sports and games is at a low ebb. Scientific studies reveal that frequently flabby muscles are accompanied by flabbier wills and the lack of moral courage. Obesity is fast becoming a serious problem among children as well as adults. Lack of physical activity is one of the most important factors in the frequency of creeping overweight.”

The brief warns that increasing mental illness, degenerative diseases like heart trouble, and the lack of stamina of servicemen and civilian workers are caused by "mechanical living” to the point of endangering the nation’s welfare.

Lloyd Percival, who claims to have trained and tested more athletes than any other Canadian and advises tens of thousands of Canadian youngsters through radio's Sports College, is a sworn enemy of cars for teenagers.

“Whenever I see one of my athletes turn up for practice in his own car for the first time, I see trouble ahead,” said Percival. One of his top young athletes became a mediocre performer for a year after he got his first car. Then he got rid of the car and has since worked his way back to his former peak.

Percival maintains that the number of teenagers taking an active part in sports has been halved since “going places in a car has become more glamorous than being a football star. Twelve to fifteen percent of high-school students used to be athletes. Now it’s five to six percent. In my own work I’m concentrating on ages six to thirteen. At that age kids are still eager. I’ve just about given up hope of arousing any interest in teenagers in any numbers.”

Teddy Morn’s, who scouts Canadian youngsters for the Toronto Argonaut football team, maintains that “the sports people just aren't competing with cars and such things for the interest of teenagers. There are still enough boys in the small top bracket to keep the big football teams supplied, but they're coming from a smaller crop of boys who try to get to the top.”

The teenager as a car owner: One group that has some affection (though it is a guarded affection) for the teenage driver is used-car dealers. Teenagers, who seldom pay more than three hundred and fifty dollars for a car (if they have to earn the money themselves), play a useful role in the car-selling cycle by providing an active market for the oldest cars.

Some dealers, though, are reluctant to sell to teenagers. “We won’t sell on terms because minors aren’t responsible for that kind of debt.” says one dealer. “Besides. there’s a good chance that a kid’s father will come down and raise the dickens with us for selling junior a car without his permission, and the ill will isn’t worth the few bucks we make on an old car.”

Teenagers may often talk about foreign sports cars but as buyers they are remarkably conservative. When Canadian High News asked teenagers from Halifax to Victoria what cars they wanted, the answers in order of preference were: Chevrolet, Ford, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile. Dodge, Plymouth, Mercury, Chrysler and Meteor.

Social life: What are teenagers’ own explanations of their great preoccupation with cars?

“A car makes me feel free and independent." says one. "It means I don’t have to ask my father for his car when I want to go out with the gang."

At most schools there’s a certain prestige attached to a car — usually more if the car, however battered, is the boy’s

own. But in a few schools in lower-income districts a car is regarded as snobbery and the owners are unpopular.

Is a car a social asset? Yes, but it has its limitations, the teenagers say. “If I liked two boys equally well I might date the one with a car a little more,” a high-school girl admits. "But if one boy was nicer, a car wouldn't help the other. The one time a girl likes her escort to have a car is when she’s going out with him all dressed up. She hates to ride a bus and be stared at.”

What about the deepest inner fear of parents — that the combination of car, boy and girl may lead to immorality? Records of the Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto show that the proportion of teenagers among unwed mothers is rising rapidly and that the car is the most frequent "place of conception.”

“To the extent that convenience and opportunity lead to immorality, the car can be blamed,” says Kathleen Sutherton, supervisor of the society's unwed parents’ department, "but we doubt that being in a car with a boy ever turned a moral girl into an immoral one.”

Crime: In at least one way teenage car ownership is a crime deterrent, according to Sergeant Don Hanson, of the Calgary police. "A boy who owns a car doesn't steal a car,” he points out, “and stealing cars or ‘taking without owner's consent' is one of the most frequent ways in which kids first get into trouble.”

But in many cities gasoline has been siphoned and gadgets have been stolen by teenagers who wanted them for their own cars.

Magistrate C. O. Bick. chairman of Metropolitan Toronto Police Commission. believes car ownership too often puts teenagers into an unfortunate relationship with police. "We try to teach children that policemen are their protectors and friends,” he says. “Then in a few years the child gets a car and starts breaking traffic laws. The policeman tries to enforce them, and becomes his enemy — someone to be dodged, tricked, circumvented.”

Parents and teenage drivers: One organization, the Parent Education Group of the Home and School Federation of Ontario, is trying to help parents arrive at a reasonably uniform policy for handling teenage driving problems by suggesting that study groups take up the question. But mostly Canadian parents are on their own. And they've concocted a wide variety of rules and attitudes. Among numerous parents questioned, uneasiness when their children were out in a car was the most prevalent parental feeling. But one mother said, "I worried for two years after my son started driving. Then last summer he got a job driving a truck for pay. That gave him such a sense of responsibility that I don’t worry any more.”

Some fathers happily use their children as chauffeurs. “There's free parking at my son’s school,” explains one father, “and it's plenty expensive downtown. So I let him drop me at the office, park at school, and pick me up after work.”

Harassed parents often turn the right to drive the family car into a disciplinary whip to enforce good behavior in other matters. Some have worked out penalty points for various offenses. Coming home late, one use of car canceled; low school grades, a month of non-driving and so on.

"I suppose psychologists would say that’s unscientific,” says one mother. "But don’t blame us parents. It’s the last shred of control we have over our children nowadays.” jc