EXPLAINER: Driver in Texas crash was 13; is that legal?

Mar 17, 2022, 9:12 PM | Updated: Mar 19, 2022, 5:50 am

From the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest to the farm country of the Great Plains and beyond, it’s not uncommon for people in rural parts of the U.S. to learn to drive when they’re young, sometimes even before they reach their teens.

But the news that a 13-year-old was behind the wheel of a pickup truck that blew a tire and struck a van on a dark, two-lane road in West Texas on Tuesday night, killing nine people — including six members of a New Mexico college’s golf teams and their coach — put a renewed focus on the practice.

At a news conference in Odessa, Texas, on Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said the dangers of underage driving put it on the agency’s “most-wanted list.” Investigators have not yet said why the teen was behind the wheel before the crash, which also killed him and his 38-year-old father in the truck.

Along with drunk and distracted driving, Landsberg said “youthful driving” and excessive speed on rural roads are among the problems that make highway driving the most dangerous form of transit in the United States.

“Every two days we are killing the equivalent of a Boeing 737 crashing,” he said, referring to highway fatalities from multiple causes. “It’s long overdue that we start to do something about it.”


Cash Hogen, a 60-year-old who runs a kitchen and hardware store in Pierre, South Dakota, recalled learning to drive a Ford Bronco “as soon as my feet hit the pedals” — probably around age 10. He’d drive the two-track roads across his family’s ranch in western South Dakota to repair barbed-wire fences or for other tasks.

But his father always stressed safety around vehicles and told stories of horrific tragedies to drive home the danger.

“Under no circumstances would I be out on a public road without my learner’s permit,” he said.

While it’s legal for people of any age to drive on private property, such as farms or ranches, public roads where others are at risk is another matter, said William Van Tassel, the manager of driver training programs for AAA’s national office.

Every U.S. state has some type of graduated driver’s licensing program, by which teens as young as 14 can begin taking driver’s education classes or begin driving with an instructor or guardian, he said. Eventually they gain more independence, being allowed to drive on their own or at night, until they have full privileges.

“Certainly in rural areas there’s a general trend of lower minimum driving ages,” Van Tassel said. “We see a lot of teen drivers have driving experience by the time they come to a formal driver’s education course because they’ve been driving trucks or tractors or other vehicles on the farm. But when it comes to public roads, the laws are pretty clear: You can’t be out there until you’re legally eligible.”

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, there were 47 fatal crashes and 1,057 injury crashes in 2020 involving drivers 13 or younger.

In 2019, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.9 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas.


The cause of Tuesday’s crash in Andrews County, Texas, near the New Mexico border, wasn’t clear, but federal authorities said Thursday that the 13-year-old was driving a Dodge pickup on a road with a 75 mph speed limit when its front left tire, a spare, blew out.

The truck veered across the center line into an oncoming transit van carrying the golf team from the University of the Southwest, in Hobbs, New Mexico. The boy and his father were killed, along with members of the golf teams and their coach.

Investigators have not yet determined why the boy was behind the wheel, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Steven Blanco said Friday.

While the area is rural, the surrounding oil fields of the Permian Basin that crosses from West Texas into New Mexico mean the traffic can be anything but, local residents said.

Gib Stevens, 57, of Hobbs, leads trucking operations for an oilfield servicing company. He said he himself started driving trucks at age 12 on dairy farms and quiet farm roads, but he said the road where the accident happened was clearly unsafe.

“For a 13-year-old to be driving that road, that was dumb,” Stevens said. “These roads are all oil traffic.”


In Texas, one must be 14 to begin classroom instruction for a learner’s license and 15 to receive that provisional license to drive with an instructor or licensed adult in the vehicle. Department of Public Safety Sgt. Victor Taylor said it would be illegal for a 13-year-old to drive on public roads.

Van Tassel noted that the crash involved several risk factors besides the youth of the driver: It happened at night and on a road with a high speed limit when the spare blew.

Further, teenage boys are one of “the most dangerous segments” of the driving population across the country, said Cathy Chase, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

“This is a worst-case scenario, on top of a worst-case scenario, on top of a worst-case scenario,” Chase said.


Johnson reported from Seattle. AP writers Jake Bleiberg in Dallas and Cedar Attanasio in Hobbs, New Mexico, contributed.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Arizona will not approve new housing construction on the fast-growing edges of metro Phoenix that r...

Associated Press

Arizona Senate passes plan to manage rural groundwater, but final success is uncertain

A plan to manage rural groundwater passed the Arizona Senate amid concerns about the availability of sufficient water for future generations.

6 hours ago

A woman pauses while shopping at a Kohl's store in Clifton, N.J., Jan. 26, 2024. On Thursday, Feb. ...

Associated Press

Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge picked up last month in sign of still-elevated prices

An inflation gauge favored by the Federal Reserve increased in January, the latest sign that the slowdown in U.S. consumer price increases is occurring unevenly from month to month.

1 day ago

This undated image provided by Mikel Desmond shows his brother Marcus Tessier, who turned up in Dem...

Associated Press

Missing teen with autism found in New Mexico, about 200 miles away from his Arizona home

A missing teen with autism has been found in New Mexico — about 200 miles away from his home in southern Arizona.

1 day ago

A newly released report on last year’s fatal crash involving a pickup truck and a group of bicycl...

Associated Press

Report suggests steering of vehicle that caused fatal Goodyear bicycle crash worked fine

A new report on last year’s fatal Goodyear bicycle crash has cast doubts about the driver’s claim the vehicle’s steering locked up.

2 days ago

Israeli Embassy...

Associated Press

US airman dies after setting himself ablaze outside Israeli Embassy in Israel-Hamas war protest

An active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force has died after he set himself ablaze outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

4 days ago

Biden and Trump to visit Mexico border Thursday immigration...

Associated Press

Biden and Trump both plan trips to the Mexico border Thursday, dueling for advantage on immigration

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will make dueling trips to the U.S-Mexico border on Thursday.

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.


Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

EXPLAINER: Driver in Texas crash was 13; is that legal?