Why Your Kid Isn’t Driving

Many of us can remember celebrating our 16th birthdays filing paperwork at the Department of Motor Vehicles and leaving with our licenses — or, at the very least, learners’ permits.

Those days, however, may well be over.

While there are still plenty of teens spending their birthdays at the DMV, an ever-increasing number of them aren’t.

Steve Rourke, manager of the West Hartford AAA Driving School and a driving instructor, said that when he first started teaching driving classes at the school, almost all the students came to class already having obtained a permit. Nearly 10 years later, it’s a different story.

Now, halfway through the classes, half of them don’t have a permit and it’s the same geographic location, same course and same town.

And Rourke said that not only are they delaying getting permits, they’re not getting their licenses either.

There is ample evidence to back up what Rourke is observing on the front lines. According to a study published in the Journal of Safety Research, from 1996 to 2010 the proportion of high school seniors in the U.S. who had a drivers license fell from 85 percent to 73 percent, with a large portion of the drop-off occurring since 2006.

Another study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2013 reports that only about half of teens were licensed before their 18th birthday, compared with more than two-thirds just two decades ago.

In part, the reduction can be credited to changes made to teen-driving laws in the last decade, according to Bill Seymour, assistant to the Connecticut DMV commissioner and director of the DMV Center for Teen Safe Driving.

The delay in licensure is occurring around the country, and can be attributed to stricter Graduated Driving Licensing laws that have come into effect, he said.

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One of those laws limits the passengers that a 16- or 17-year-old can have in the car, and Seymour believes that it serves as a deterrent. You can’t cart around your friends and go joy-riding in the first year, so that has put a big damper on getting the driver’s license as a rite of passage into adulthood.

In addition to passenger limitations, the laws also impose curfews on young drivers and enhanced penalties for teens caught violating them.

But it’s not only teen driving laws that have changed in recent years — kids, themselves, have changed too.

Kids are pretty scheduled, said Rourke. They are busy doing other things, and driver’s education takes a back seat.

Those other things largely include sports, clubs, social activities and schoolwork. The students’ hectic schedules lead to an increased amount of responsibilities and obligations, leaving little free time.

The current crop of kids is growing up with a different set of circumstances than we did, he said. They don’t want additional pressure and worry, so they are deferring until they aren’t so overloaded.

Some studies also have suggested that the decline in teen drivers is directly related to the rise of social media and smartphones, which allow teens to connect with their peers without having to drive. But a 2013 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute in Virginia found that technology isn’t the problem; money is.

It looks as though teens just can’t afford to drive, says HLDI Vice President Matt Moore. Paying for their own cars, gas and insurance is hard if they can’t find a job. And driving isn’t cheap. Adding a teen driver to an existing insurance policy held by the parents can double, even triple, the annual premium.

Finally, for some teens, the reluctance to get behind the wheel boils down to fear of what they see on the road, said Rourke. It doesn’t help that there are more cars on the road, more people multitasking behind the wheel, and a lot more distracted drivers than ever before. For a new driver, it can be overwhelming.

Whatever the reason, Rourke recommends that parents avoid forcing teens into driving if they aren’t ready. If a 16- or 17-year-old is feeling pressure from mom or dad to drive, and they don’t want to, they won’t do well. He went on to suggest that parents give their anxious teens some time to progress at their own speed, and to start small by letting them drive the lawn mower, or taking them to drive go-karts on a Saturday afternoon.

Make it fun. Take the pressure and fear out a little bit at a time; let the new driver come to grips on his or her own.

Rourke also reminds parents that even though driving was a rite of passage for them, it might be different now for kids.

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