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.
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.”
Once he got his permit, he started driving with his parents. Although driving became easier, he didn’t particularly enjoy it. The original permit expired before he passed the driving test, and a new permit was issued. The day after his 18th birthday, Harry passed the behind-the-wheel driver’s test and got his license.
“I had been getting rides (to school) with my dad, and there were always enough people driving places, that I didn’t really need a license,” Harry said. “The only reason I got one was to help my mom and dad drive my younger brothers places.” Harry added: “The day I got my license, I drove home by myself. The minute I was by myself, I realized how stupid I had been for not getting my license sooner. I loved it. Driving alone is the coolest thing.”
Diane Worley’s daughter, Ivy, of Mill Valley, Calif., got her license the day before her 17th birthday.
“It was a combination of not being ready and being too busy to schedule the driving test,” Diane said. “I got my license the day I turned 16, couldn’t wait for the independence of driving. My only serious car accident ever was in my first three months of driving. Ivy has not had an accident yet. I think that speaks for itself.”
In Los Angeles (where I learned to drive), many parents cite the “congested streets” and “crazy drivers” as the reasons that their kids and teen acquaintances are delaying getting their licenses, often past college.
And then there is Trevor Perelson, 18, of Mill Valley, Calif. who simply relishes the journey more by bike than he would if traveling by car. And it’s not as if he doesn’t travel long distances. He just completed a 14-day, 450-mile round-trip bike ride, in addition to using bike transportation daily.
“Driving a car is not even half as much fun as riding a bike,” he said.
“Half of my friends got their licenses at 16,” Trevor said, although most of his college-age friends don’t drive. “If they do, they regret it. To have a car means you’re forced to work or have your parents pay for the car and gas. Not everyone has that luxury.”
Trevor, who has a job building chicken coops, said, “I don’t think it’s worth it to have to work to drive a destructive machine that’s less fun than biking. It doesn’t make sense. I can be anywhere I need to be on my bike in an hour or by bus in 40 minutes.”
“The time spent working just to obtain and drive a car would be wasted. I’d rather live, learn and travel.” Trevor added, “There’s a communal aspect to bike riding. If I see someone I know, and I’m on a bike, I can stop and say hi. You can’t do that in a car. I like to feel the land versus just going over it — feel the steep hills and the humid climate, see the people and hear the noises.”
Anna also recently get her permit. She decided she wants to know how to drive, even if she doesn’t do it often. And, she’s right — it’s a good life skill to have in one’s arsenal. We’re also in the school of many parents who think that, while it’s great that our kid gets around on bike, foot or by carpooling, learning to drive now, with her parents and in her home town, before she goes off to college in a year, will actually make her a safer and more confident driver, when she does inevitably drive (although, frankly, waiting a little was fine, too).
Whatever the laws in your state and the new driver’s age, driving practice and safe habits are paramount.