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Some teens can benefit from having their own car

TOM: For the past couple of weeks, we've been printing some of the responses we got to our "Should a 16-Year-Old Have a Car?" survey.

RAY: And while our readers were against the idea 2-to-1, the responses seemed to break down into two categories.TOM: The Pro-Car group thinks that car ownership is a great way to teach teenagers responsibility.

RAY: And the Anti-Car-ites think that a car is much too dangerous a thing to use as a teaching tool and that kids ought to demonstrate responsibility first by taking out the garbage every week.

TOM: That's the group I'm in! And my 16-year-old son has been trying to knock me off for almost a year now!

RAY: We've heard from some of the people with very strong feelings. Here are a few letters that sounded pretty reasonable to us.

Dear Tom and Ray: When I was a teenager, I got to borrow my mother's 15-year-old Buick. On my way to school, I'd drop Mom off at work. After school, I went to work at a service station, and after work, I'd pick up Mom and we would go home. After working for a year, I had saved enough money to buy my very own 10-year-old Ford. Over the years, I got newer and better cars and still saved enough to get through college. By the time I was out of school, I was getting a new car every two years.

Now, I'm married, with a daughter who will soon be learning to drive (and I'm back to driving a 10-year-old Ford!). There are more important things for a teenager than getting a new car. An education is certainly one of them. Chances are good the first car will get banged up anyway, so it's better to start with something that can't get much worse. It's important to give them something to work up to. - Colin

Dear Tom and Ray: Fortunately for our whole family, my uncle gave my 16-year-old son a 1981 Plymouth Champ. That was three years ago. It was an answer to my prayers. We live in the country. I was spending my entire life driving Keith and his sister, Margot, to sports and other activities. Once he had the car, he drove himself and Margot almost everywhere. And since Margot is seven years younger, and quite verbal, I always knew exactly what had happened. I even gave him a credit card and told him he could charge $10 a week in gas on it, and he never went over the limit.

I admit he's a pretty unusual and amazing kid (I don't know where he gets that from!). Now he is at Cornell in engineering school. I think every 16-year-old who has learned to make good decisions should have a car. I'll be looking for another one in five years when Margot turns 16! - Sue

Dear Tom and Ray: As a parent of a 16-year-old daughter, I had to write to comment. I have just purchased a 1987 Olds Toronado for her first car. She has a job and will contribute 10 percent of her paycheck to a "car payment" to repay me. She'll also bank $60 a month to pay for her insurance. I think there is a valid learning experience as well as a great self-esteem boost from owning a car.

Tom, you seem to think that just because there is another car in the driveway that is "her car," the teenager can then come and go as she pleases. NOT SO IN THIS HOUSE! My daughter will still have the same curfews and restrictions on her driving and social life as before car ownership. The early days of her driving will be restricted to nice weather, daytime only, with no passengers until her skills improve.

I will be checking carefully to make sure she sticks to these restrictions (as Ronald Reagan said when negotiating with the Russians, "Trust, but verify"). While I agree that arguments over "why can't I go, I've got my own car," will be more intense than if she were asking for my car, the rules for her use of her car will be put down on paper, and that paper will, no doubt, be dog-eared from being pulled out for reference during those arguments. But that's all part of raising a teenager.

Bottom line: Teenagers don't have the God-given right to a car, but it can be used as a learning experience if consistently regulated and controlled. Good luck to all of us parents of teenagers! - George

TOM: Good luck to us, indeed. Thanks, George.