Friday, April 14, 2006
Wanted: experienced teen drivers
In response to recent horrific accidents involving teen drivers, the Massachusetts legislature is moving toward raising the legal driving age to 17 1/2. Proponents say that the extra year will ensure greater maturity among teen drivers and will save lives. Not necessarily, opponents reply — and the real problem, they say, is lack of experience on the roads. Far too often a teen's car wrapped around a tree is due to "loss of control" and "excessive speed."
Speeding through Carlisle landed one teenager's car in Macone's Pond (Mosquito, March 3, 2006, page 1), freakishly followed by his friend's car. Fortunately the drivers, both 17, survived the plunge. Carlisle's narrow, twisty-turny roads challenge even veteran drivers — navigating Curve Street or Cross Street requires caution and weaving around cyclists takes experience. Caution and experience are usually not part of an eager teen driver's vocabulary. If it passes, the new law would increase the hours of on-road experience in driver's ed classes. It would also require 50 hours of supervised driving (not the current 12 hours) under the watchful eye of a parent or guardian.
When I'm driving in Carlisle on nights that are blacker than ink, I can still hear my father's voice: "When headlights blind you, keep your eyes on the right side of the road," he advised. When I was 16, he would take me out driving on Sundays; I was exposed to many driving situations, including icy roads. By the time I turned 17, I had taken driver's ed, logged nearly 70 hours of supervised driving with my dad, and drove with a junior operator's license. My driving record is still clean.
Back then our car (we had only one) lacked the formidable array of dashboard buttons we have now; it had no radio to fiddle with; the cell phone hadn't been invented, and eating french fries in the car was unheard of. Today's teen drivers face all those distractions and more.
Carlisle is a town without public transportation, where mom and dad chauffeur the kids until they can drive legally. It's certainly convenient when young Alex or Melissa can drive themselves to school or a job, or take younger siblings to appointments. But at what risk and with how many temptations — other teens in the car, drag racing, speeding to beat the curfew? With enormous anxiety I lived through my own teenager's rite of passage into driverhood in a nearby town — the sleepless nights until he was safely home, the Ford Mustang we helped him buy when he turned 18, the two speeding tickets he collected in one day.
Legislators hope for a new law by summer's end. Young lives depend on it.
The Mary Poppins tax
My favorite tax story is the year the Internal Revenue Service sent me a letter disallowing one of my three children as an exemption. They didn't claim that one of my daughters was independent or that I was a non-custodial parent. They just claimed that one of them did not exist. Such is the clout of the IRS that I was tempted to line up my three girls, fruit of my womb, and demand, "Which one of you is the impostor?"
As the unpaid tax preparer in our family, it's hard not to conclude that the federal tax filing system couldn't be much improved. True confessions — I used to be a tax lawyer, and I understand the policy reasons behind the seemingly meaningless line-by-line calculations. I just question a process that, for example, forces you to get to Line 186, Part III, of Form 89267, before the instructions shout, "Stop! You do not qualify for this credit." Doesn't that seem a bit sadistic? It would be much easier if the forms carried a time-saving warning notice, like a corollary to the paperwork reduction notice, "If you make over $X, don't bother filling this out."
My solution is the Mary Poppins tax — a two-line filing that states, under penalties of perjury, (1) this is what I earned, and (2) this is what I need. The name derives from a line in the movie when the children are clamoring for more of the nanny's excitement, and she replies, "Enough is as good as a feast." I didn't fully appreciate this aphorism the first time I heard it. A feast, after all, is the pinnacle of enjoyment of the fruits of your labors. Over the years, however, I've come to realize that there's a comfort in knowing that your needs and even desires can be satisfied without driving yourself to obscene heights or exploiting resources that could be left untouched. In part, my change in outlook stems from maturity, but it is also colored by the growing gulf between the haves and have-nots that I believe perches us on the edge of an ethical precipice. I'm not alone in this observation. Calvin Trillin described the "Alice Tax" as his wife's belief that, in light of how utterly needy some of us are, all of our earnings above a certain generous amount should be paid as taxes for their support.
Of course, this tax simplification plan is about as unrealistic as Dave Barry's "Everybody Pays $6.50 Tax." It mercilessly sidesteps questions about the merits of private philanthropy versus government safety nets and about incentives for productivity, whether people will work as hard to garner wealth if they know they can't keep it or bequeath it. How well this tax would work, if we left to individual choice the decision of what is enough, would test the health of our society. Certainly, we'd keep enough for the immediate needs and comforts of ourselves and our families, but how willing would we be to make a conscious decision to give up what we'd otherwise save for tomorrow because somebody else needs it more today — on the faith that when we need it, somebody else will do the same for us? It's nothing more than the Golden Rule.
© 2006 The