MANCHESTER BY-THE-SEA — Sam Koufman waited 16½ years to be 16½. Then he waited two months for an appointment for his road test. Then, on the morning of the test, he waited what felt like forever for his mother to get back from jogging. Then he waited an hour in traffic as they made their way to the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Lawrence. Then he waited in the Registry line, which is not a good line to be in if you feel like you cannot wait any longer.
Then, suddenly, all the waiting was over. He made it to the front of the line, went out for his road test with the state examiner, and after a few minutes of driving and one decent parallel parking job, the victory was his. Sam Koufman had his driver’s license, “which is like the biggest freedom in the entire world.”
Except in Massachusetts, that freedom comes with a leash for teenagers. So when Koufman got home to Manchester-by-the-Sea, he began another wait — one that lasts for six months; one that teenagers describe with words like “excruciating.”
For Koufman and the rest of the 16- and 17-year-olds who have earned their driver’s licenses in Massachusetts since the state adopted the Junior Operator Bill in 2007, roughly 52,000 of them, the freedom of a driver’s license has come with a big catch. For the first six months, all they really get to do is drive alone.
Since the law went into effect, a generation of drivers have experienced the rite of passage that is getting your driver’s license without immediately getting to experience many of the reasons teenagers want a license in the first place: no cruising around with your buddies, no picking up a girl for a date, no “parking.”
In its place there is, by design, mostly solitude.
The Junior Operator’s License bars drivers under the age of 18 from having anyone under 18 in the car with them for the first six months, unless that person is an immediate family member.
‘When I go anywhere with my friends, there are eight people in eight different cars, which is kind of ridiculous.’
The logic behind the law is to give young drivers an “opportunity to develop good driving skills, while being free of possible distractions caused by having friends your own age present while you are behind the wheel,” according to state literature distributed to potential drivers.
While the logic behind the restriction is sound — that same pamphlet says that 30 percent of 16-year-old drivers are involved in a serious crash — ask anyone who has gone through that probationary period and they will tell you it’s a long six months.
“I understand the reason for the rule, but it’s like the worst rule ever,” Koufman said as he drove aimlessly around town, something he has done every day since he got his license on June 6.
While this may be the very definition of a “First-World Problem” — Koufman lives in a nice house in a beach town and was lucky enough to get his dad’s old Saab as a hand-me-down — the fact that the first flush of independence can only be experienced independently feels like a cruel trick.
Most of the time, he just goes for a ride around Cape Ann, “spins the beach,” and listens to the new playlist he made for this momentous occasion. It’s called “Conclusions.”
If he has to go anywhere, anywhere at all, he drives. And that includes the three minutes it takes him to get to his summer job scooping slushies at the Singing Beach snack bar.
And while the temptation is there to break the rule — “When I go anywhere with my friends, there are eight people in eight different cars, which is kind of ridiculous,” he said — violations draw a stiff penalty.
While teeangers say the law is routinely flouted, if a Junior Operator is caught with other kids in the car — the state issued 143 citations for violations to the passenger restriction during the first five months of this year — their license is suspended for 60 days, and the six-month clock stops running during that suspension.
Koufman said he’s afraid of the law, but more afraid of his mother. He’s the youngest of her three sons, and at this point, “she has spies watching you everywhere.”
The other day, his older brother borrowed his car, and was driving around town with a bunch of friends.
A few minutes later, he got a text from his mother. “All it said was, ‘Busted.’ ”