Research shows that teens in no hurry to be behind the wheel

USA TODAY, March 14, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

The frantic rush to get a license at 16 — once a staple in American adolescence — is disappearing as Internet access and stiffening driving rules have led teens to wait longer to beg for the keys.

Hannah Hart, 17, a high school junior in Atlanta, has had a learner’s permit for almost two years but says digital access to friends, games and other activities has kept her and her peers from getting their full licenses.

“Kids can entertain themselves completely at home,” Hart said. “People aren’t going to the movies as much. People haven’t been going to arcades. If I didn’t have a computer or have a cellphone, I would definitely push myself more to get a license to go out and do things.”

In 2010, 28% of 16-year-olds had driver’s licenses, compared with 44% in 1980, according to research by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan.

The number of older licensed teens also has dropped from 1980 to 2010: 17-year-olds went from 66% to 45%, 18-year-olds from 75% to 61%, and 19-year-olds from 80% to 70%.

The reasons behind the decline vary, officials say.

“For younger consumers, the smartphone may be the shiny new cars from previous generations,” said Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst at Gartner, a research firm.

Michael Sivak, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute who provided the 2010 teen driving percentages, also pointed to teens’ access to the Internet.

He added that the current economic downturn has made it more difficult for young people to own a vehicle, an increasing number are moving to cities that have regular public transportation, and young people, concerned with the environment, are opting against having cars or licenses.

Graduated licensing programs have also made it harder to get a license by adding requirements.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is one of several sponsors of the Safe Teen And Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, which would establish minimum federal requirements for state graduated licensing laws.

“One of the facts that people can’t get away from is, mile for mile, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes,” she said. “It helps to get some national standards in place.”

“You have shifted novices who would be 16 and 17 in the past to 18 and 19,” said Scott Masten, a research manager at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. “They’re just not as experienced as they were in the past.”

Supporters of the programs say more research needs to be done. “It is worth looking at the driving patterns of 18-year-olds, but I believe that right now our focus should be on younger drivers,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

Jeffrey Nadel, vice president of the National Youth Rights Association, says “discriminatory” graduated license programs “are making it seem like it’s not worth it to get a license until 18.”

“We are looking at this solely in terms of age and not experience in driving,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s leading to these tragic results.”

The laws are part of the reason Madelyn Vilhauer, 17, of San Francisco, isn’t behind the wheel.

“I felt like it was a lot of work for something that wouldn’t really pay off,” she said, adding that she doesn’t have regular access to a car she could drive.

Her mother, Leigh Anne Varney, 51, said she’s cautious about letting her daughter drive her Prius because it’s her only mode of transportation to work and that with driver’s ed no longer offered at school, the cost of hiring a driving instructor — $250 to $1,000 — took a back seat to other needs.

“If you’re choosing between healthy meals or paying for college applications, driving goes off the list,” Varney said.

Robert Epstein, a research psychologist and author of Teen 2.0, cautions against teens postponing getting their licenses.

“We are making it harder for them to enter the adult world,” he said of teens. “We are teaching them to be helpless, be dependent and feel entitled.”

Megan McHale, 21, a senior at La Salle University in Philadelphia who has never driven a car, said she hasn’t needed a license to get around and be independent. Originally from Queens, N.Y., McHale has relied on the subway and a bike to get around. She does plan to get a license soon though because it’s “getting embarrassing.”

Jonathan Hsia, 17, a high school junior in Missouri City, Texas, just got his license because he needed to get to classes at a local community college. “I wasn’t really excited,” he said. His parents never hesitated to drive him around and his friends don’t talk about getting their licenses, he said.

Hart’s permit expires in about two months. Her parents’ willingness to taxi her around Atlanta and her school’s rule that she be a senior to drive to classes hurt her motivation to get a license in the past.

But her dad has “started getting annoyed taking me places” and is now offering to buy her a car if she gets a license, Hart said.

“I don’t think you should go off to college without learning how to drive,” she said. “Everyone needs to learn how to do it.”