Basil Rynestead is a friendly 17-year-old who plays football and baseball for his high school, listens to rap and country music, and loves to drive the old Toyota pickup truck his parents gave him.
It's that last part where, whether you know Basil or not, you might pause. A highway statistician would forgive you.
The number of teenage drivers in fatal car crashes has dropped dramatically in the past decade. But new numbers from the federal government confirm that male drivers are still having twice as many fatal crashes as females. And the boys are more likely than the girls to have been speeding or drinking.
Basil and his parents don't need those stats to know they're fighting a real battle against peer pressure, his inexperience and other challenges to keep him safe on the road.
'Guys Do Stupid Stuff For Adrenaline'
On a moonless, fall evening, Basil is just home from football practice at Liberty High School in Fauquier County, Va., and takes a reporter for a ride.
The rural roads near his house are twisty and have no shoulders. The traffic is fast. But Basil seems relaxed and focused behind the wheel. He says he's had to brush off some of his buddies who've told him to drive faster.
"Guys like to do stupid stuff for adrenaline," he says. "There's a lot of my friends who think it's cool to speed, like they'll speed up a lot during the curves. I don't like doing that stuff."
In all, about 6,000 15- to 20-year-old drivers were involved in fatal crashes last year. Almost three-quarters of them were male — helping make car crashes the leading cause of death for that age group.
"There's just these really striking differences between males and females," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "You see a discrepancy in terms of all driver errors, including speeding, so that might be following too closely, failure to yield."
Renee Rynestead, Basil's mom, says she has all the usual concerns that parents of a young driver have, plus, she worries her son can be impulsive and easily distracted. Take homecoming weekend. Unexpectedly, he called her and said he was at a party where other kids were drinking.
"I said, 'Then you need to come home, you know. We've talked about that,' " Rynestead recalls. But Basil decided to stay at his friend's house overnight, putting his mother in a quandary.
"If I forced him to come home, then he might have a drink and drive," she says. Her son returned home at 7:30 the next morning and told her he had not had alcohol.
While Basil says he'd never drink and drive, other teenagers clearly do, and with tragic results.
"Male teenagers who are driving in a fatal crash are much more likely — more than twice as likely — to have been alcohol impaired when the crash occurred," says McCartt, the highway researcher.
Delaying Giving Out Licenses
In addition to taking more risks, it's also true that males drive more. So they have more opportunities to crash. But some studies have made adjustments for that, and the gender gap is still there.
Figures from McCartt's group indicate that male drivers continue to have higher rates of fatal crashes than females as they age, and that gender difference doesn't disappear until age 60.
There may be no easy way to moderate the combination of horsepower and testosterone. But McCartt says there's promise in state laws that grant driving privileges gradually for all teens, as they gain skills and maturity.
"Delaying licensure until teens are older has a strong effect on their crash rates and their fatal crash rates," she says.
Virginia requires young drivers and their parents to appear before a judge just to get their licenses.
In a courtroom in the city of Chesapeake, Judge Larry Willis hands out licenses to teenagers one by one. But first he reminds them that he has the power to take them away.
"As you're driving down the road and thinking of something really stupid to do, or to you it may seem a really cool thing to do," Willis says, "or a friend riding with you suggests something like, 'Let's see how fast your car will go,' think to yourself, 'Is this worth spending the next two years riding in the back seat with my mom and dad driving me around?' "
Willis also had a message for the parents in his courtroom. He told them that they — not their sons and daughters — should set the rules on when — and if — their kids can drive.
It's a message that Rynestead, as the mother of a new driver, takes to heart.
"It's not that we don't trust Basil," she says, "It's an earning thing, and every time we give him just an inch he takes a mile. So socially, we keep it really limited, because I'm afraid that if we don't put real boundaries on what we're doing with him, he'll just take whatever he can do."