Today's teens may have less drive to get licensed

Mary Lou Jay

For previous generations, a driver's license was a cherished symbol of independence. But today's teens aren't in as big a rush. Whether it's because of fear, finances or disinterest, they're putting off their driving tests.

It's a national trend. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 64 percent of teens between the ages of 16 and 19 had their drivers' licenses in 1995. By 2008, that percentage had declined to 46 percent.

Experts point to many reasons for the drop-off. Getting a license has become a more complicated and expensive process. States often require teens to complete a driver's education course before getting a license, but school districts have dropped the once-free classes because of budget pressures. Steadily increasing auto insurance and fuel costs also have made it harder for teens to pay the tab for driving.

Several states now demand that teens spend more time practicing before they take the driving test. Parents must fill out logbooks documenting teens' practice hours and driving skills. Graduated driver licensing laws in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and several other states do not allow teens to have full driving privileges until age 18, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. For some, it may simply be too much trouble.

Teens themselves are busy between school, work and extracurricular activities. If they make a varsity team or hold a part-time job, they may not be able to take the time off to complete driver's education or the required practice driving hours.

Some teens admit being too scared to drive. They may have siblings, friends or acquaintances who were injured or killed in accidents. It's also difficult for drivers just starting out to cope with traffic congestion in many urban and suburban areas. A September 2009 GEICO Teen Driving blog post describes some teens' apprehension about being responsible for their lives (and those of their fellow drivers) while behind the wheel.

They have valid concerns. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens; more than 5,000 young people from age 16 to 20 die in crashes each year.

When a teen is ready to learn to drive, however, parents should reinforce these basic driving safety rules, according to the Insurance Information Institute:

  • Do not use alcohol or drugs.
  • Always use seat belts.
  • Stay within the speed limits.
  • Avoid distracted driving: no cell phones, texting, eating, drinking or changing CDs or radio stations.
  • Limit the number of passengers (many states already do so by law).

Getting lots of behind-the-wheel practice early on is vital. Reminding teens that they do have some control over their driving may help them overcome their fears so they'll want to get their licenses -- even if it is a few years beyond the 16th birthday.

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