Study shows steady decline in teens getting driver's licenses

Special to The Baltimore Sun

For years we’ve been passing laws to make it safer for teen drivers. In Maryland, we have a graduated licensing system that sets curfews and other restrictions on provisional drivers. We’ve raised the age when kids can get a driver’s license to 16 and 6 months.

But ironically, it seems many kids aren’t that bothered about driving anyway. A new study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute is the latest to report a steady decline in the percentage of teens getting their driver’s licenses.

In 1983, nearly half of 16 year olds and 70 percent of 17 year olds had their licenses. Today, less than 30 percent of 16 year olds and only about 45 percent of 17 year olds have driver’s licenses.

The researchers say the economy and rising gas prices are partly to blame. But they also note the effect of the Internet and cell phones. With Facebook, text messaging, Skype and other ways of instantly communicating, kids don’t have to drive to get together.

I don’t buy that. When I was a teenager, I spent hours on the phone talking to my girlfriends, but I also counted the days until I was old enough to drive. Kids can communicate instantly, but unless they drive, most of them who live in the suburbs can’t leave the house unless their parents take them.

I wonder if the reluctance to get a license is just another sign of the ever-lengthening childhood in which kids don’t become truly independent until their mid 20s or later. We can blame the economy, but let’s look at ourselves. As long as we hold the car keys, we have a certain amount of control over when and where our children go out.

Now that my 15-year-old son has a learner’s permit and his older friends have licenses, I know the gut-wrenching worry of having kids behind the wheel. But I want my son to get his license as soon as he is eligible. I want him to take one more step toward independence. Just as long as he remembers to fill up the tank.

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