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Teens waiting to get drivers' licenses, prefer public transport

Teens are waiting longer to get their drivers' licenses, according to a new study. They prefer walkable cities and good public transportation to the hassle and cost of maintaining a car.

By Guest blogger / July 12, 2012

Teens are less likely to get their drivers' licenses when they turn 16, according to a recent study. In this 2002 file photo, 16-year-olds Leo Livshetz, left, and Sterling Proffer drive in California.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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There was a time when turning 16 automatically meant a trip to the DMV to become a newly minted driver, at least if car culture movies like "American Graffiti," and even many of our own teen memories, are to be believed.

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Guest blogger

Susan Sachs Lipman is the author of "Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World," which grew out of her award-winning blog, Slow Family Online. She is the social media director for the Children & Nature Network. Susan and her family enjoy gardening, hiking, soap crafting and food canning.

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But a new study from Oregon State Public Interest Research Group reveals that today’s teens are not so quick to gun their engines and join the ranks of drivers, and that cruising the main drag in a steel-skinned living-room-on-wheels isn’t the rite of passage to adulthood and freedom it once was.

In 2010, a mere 28 percent of 16 year olds had driver’s licenses, compared with 44 percent in 1980, according to another study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. While this doesn’t take into account new laws regarding ages of drivers, older teens are driving at lower rates, too. From 1980 to 2010, 17-year-old licensed drivers dropped from 66 percent to 45 percent; 18-year-olds from 75 percent to 61 percent; and 19-year-olds from 80 percent to 70 percent.

Why is this? According to University of Michigan’s Michael Sivak, the economic downturn has made it more difficult for young people to own a vehicle and cover its costs, from gas to insurance to the actual car. In addition, he notes, an increasing number of young people are moving to cities that have regular public transportation. And then there are those who are driving less or not at all out of concern for the environment. He also points to internet access and the popularity of social networks and texting, which means that kids can interact with each other from their own homes and from places that they don’t need a car to access.

With all the appropriate messages out there warning teens against texting and driving, think of it this way: Given the choice, many teens would rather text than drive.

In addition, there’s a desire among younger people, for the first time in decades, to live in walkable cities with good public transportation and biking. (There is a desire among older people for this, too.) In these cities, they often rely on car-sharing programs like Zipcar in a sincere effort to drive less while also not having to worry about storage and maintenance.

My daughter and her peer group seem to mirror this national trend. Anna, who is 16, is in no hurry to get a driver’s license. Some of her friends got them at or around 16 (the minimum age for licensing in California). Many others waited. A couple admit to having been nervous. Still others are just taking their time. For various reasons, they don’t perceive a strong need to drive.

“Fewer parents are working 9-5 than they used to,” Anna said, “so they’re more available when needed. Kids get accustomed to getting rides from their parents and other drivers.”

That was Harry Miller’s story. The Sebastopol, Calif., teen got his driver’s license the day after his 18th birthday. “I started online driver’s ed the day after my 16th birthday,” he said. “I took a long time to finish. I was a little afraid of being behind the wheel and driving around.”

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