Why Are Teenagers Skipping the Driver's License Milestone?

Getting your license the moment you turned sixteen used to be a monumental rite of passage. Teenagers couldn't wait for the freedom to zip through the streets on their own, rather than having to wait for Mom and Dad to take them everywhere they need to go. Today's teens, however, are taking a different approach to getting their driver's license. Some of them are putting it off for months or even years, while others are foregoing a driver's license altogether.

By the Numbers

In 1993, around 66% of teens acquired a driver's license within a year of reaching that magical sixteenth birthday. By 2013, on the other hand, that number had dropped to only 44%. Across the country, only around 71% of teens have their license by their senior year in high school--a number that is down from more than 88% in 1996.

What's Holding Teens Back?

For many teens, getting a driver's license isn't worth the effort for one simple reason: it's expensive. During the Great Recession, when jobs were short, many of the positions traditionally filled by teenagers were taken by adults instead. As a result, teens became more reliant on their parents for funds. They can't afford to buy a car on their own (and their parents, who were also hit hard by the Great Recession, may be unable to provide one for them). Gas, too, adds up fast--especially when teens are hurrying off to a wide range of activities each week.

Teens across the United States have also found that it's easier to get around without needing to have a license. They're able to use public transportation, take advantage of ride-sharing services, and use other methods for getting around--none of which require them to have a driver's license. There's been a significant population shift in recent years from suburban to urban areas, which means that teens have greater access to public transportation in general. As a result, while teens may not get their license until they're closer to eighteen, they're still able to enjoy the activities they've always been part of.

In addition, having a car is no longer considered the highest status symbol for a teenager. Even those who do have access to the money they need for a car and gas are more likely to spend their funds on the latest phone or other device--and they don't need to be able to jump in the car to spend time connecting with their friends, either. Thanks to the rise of social media, the increase in ability to text in order to communicate, and a number of other online factors, teens are discovering that it's easier than ever to connect without having to be outside of their own homes to do it.

The Repercussions

With teens waiting until they're a little older to acquire that magical driver's license, several factors will come into play. While there's no magical age for when drivers become more comfortable on the road or are less likely to make a mistake behind the wheel--experience is the only real way to gain that comfort on the road--other factors do come into play. Older drivers are more likely to be calm. As teens get older, they're more likely to make wise judgment calls that will prevent them from being involved in an accident--for example, keeping their phone in the back seat so that they won't be distracted on the road or remembering to put off other tasks until they're safely out of the car. Age may also encourage drivers to be more responsible behind the wheel, drive less distracted, and pay more attention to what's going on around them.

Teen drivers waiting longer to get their license may make the roads a little safer--and it also makes many parents breathe a sigh of relief. Not only do they get to wait later to have that hard increase in insurance premiums, parents are often more comfortable knowing that they're the ones driving their teens around for at least a little longer.

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