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Wheel Tax

Happy 16th birthday, dear. Here's your car.



We begin, as usual, with a reading from Scripture, this time from the 3rd Chapter of St. Paul's Second Letter to the Cleavers: And on the 8th day, after He was well rested, God created Sprawl, and out of Sprawl he brought forth leafy residential neighborhoods, copious shopping malls, and tastefully landscaped office campuses, and He named them Suburbia. And to ensure that adolescent sojourners in the Land that was named Suburbia would suffer no boredom, God mandated that all parents must purchase for their progeny an automobile to mark the occasion of the offspring's 16th birthday. And lo, it has ever been thus.

And that, folks, is why suburban boys and girls seem so certain that it is, truly, a God-given birthright that they receive a car the day they turn 16.

And a driver's license, of course, and insurance and an EXXON card and a license frame that reads "Yield to the Princess" (for girls) or "Ain't Skeered" (for boys). And, along with all of this -- needless to say -- comes carte blanche permission to drive anyone anywhere anytime, with Gangsta-Alt-Metal-Country blasting as loud as the sound system will go.

There is, these days, great trepidation over the July 1st implementation of the Graduated Driver's License, which will place restrictions on anyone under 18 who gets a license on or after that date. No more than one friend in the car. No driving after 11 p.m. Fascist stuff like that. Expect long lines at the driver testing station and record enrollment in driver's ed classes this month, as the hordes of hopeful drivers make a dash to try and get their licenses before such odious restrictions go into effect.

Yet not all of us -- myself included -- think this is such odious or fascist stuff. We are parents who are glad to see our kids supervised in their driving, even if it means curtailing a bit of the God-given freedom our teenagers think they deserve.

And we have an advocate in our corner: Dr. Dale Wisely, a clinical psychologist who practices child, adolescent, and family therapy in Birmingham. Wisely, who lived in Memphis from 1978 to 1982 while receiving his M.S. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Memphis, is the author and keeper of a wonderfully sane and thoroughly practical Web site -- Parenting the Teenage Driver -- which is found at

Wisely also created The Chiff and Fipple, an Internet hub for those of us who are obsessive players of tinwhistles (see the last Burbland for shocking confessions on my part), and he keeps the Journal of the Home Gorilla Breeding Society of North Central Alabama, for those who are concerned with such problems as "remodeling homes to cccommodate in-home simian breeding activities." He is, in other words, a man of great humor and taste.

Yet he lets us know, right up front, that he's serious as can be when it comes to the business of teen drivers: "For most parents, nothing you will deal with as a parent will be more important, more life-and-death, than how your teenager uses -- and misuses -- a motor vehicle. What is at stake here is knowing that you have done all you can reasonably do to avoid burying your own child."

To prove his point -- as if it needed proving -- Wisely presents a series of harrowing statistics: "Motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) are the leading cause of death in people age 16 to 20. MVAs account for about 1/3 of deaths of people in this age group. People age 16 to 20 have the highest fatality rate due to MVAs of any other age group. People age 16 to 20 make up only 5 percent of drivers and drive only 3 percent of all miles driven by all drivers. And yet they are involved in 15 percent of traffic deaths."

And this, which I think is as telling as you need: "16-year-old drivers are 20 times as likely to have an MVA than the general population."

There is, Wisely maintains, a sane way off of this skid pad: a driving contract. In it, parents and new drivers establish rules, guidelines, and consequences for earning the privilege -- not the "right" -- to drive a car. Negotiating the contract is tough going, Wisely warns. Many parents can expect epic whining or torrents of slick teenage rhetoric about how all their friends have cars and about how they're the meanest, most strict parents on earth.

To which parents must be willing to stand firm. As Wisely keeps warning, this is hard work, but it's definitely a situation in which the end justifies the means.

Best of all, Wisely's site presents a sample contract that can stand as the basis for the family negotiations. You can use the online contract, or you can download a copy that you can edit to suit your needs.

Just make sure it's agreed to, signed, and sealed before you start handing out car keys. That way, you stand a better chance of keeping your kids alive to whine another day.

You can e-mail David Dawson at

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