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New-Old Driver

On discovering the high cost of learning to drive later in life

By Novella Carpenter

Just finished a two-hour phone call with my mama. She spent a spa weekend with some friends from the little-children-with-diapers days. So I got the update on all my long lost childhood friends. Ben's teaching at Dartmouth; Ethan owns a landscaping business and has two kids; Seth is a high-profile chef.

Along the same lines, I get to see people I knew grow up in 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 recently decided to take control of her life by getting a driver's license. At 33, she was a little late, but having grown up in Chicago with its El-train, she simply never needed to drive. 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 in which I obtained my driver's license.

When I plugged in that I'd gotten 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 new-old drivers are more likely to get in an accident.

Henry Nguyen, a driving instructor at Deluxe Driving School in Mountain View, Calif., 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 as a 16-year-old driver, I realized it's true that I had no fear. I went to a high school that had a class in driver's education 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 and accidentally "killed" the car.

Being lucky, I've somehow made it this far without getting in a major accident. But if I were just learning to drive in early mid-life, my own current age, I might be paralyzed by the enormity of what it means to be a responsible driver. Maybe the insurance companies have a point.

In the end, my friend 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! E-mail Rev at [email protected]

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From the January 25-31, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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