What once was teenage rite of passage — getting a driver's license — is being postponed as younger people choose to take public transportation, can't afford a car or simply decide they don't need one.
In Maryland and across the country, 16-year-olds are obtaining driver's licenses in fewer numbers than two decades ago, sometimes waiting years before attempting that dreaded parallel parking test, according to a national study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The study, released Thursday, found that only 44 percent of teens obtain a driver's license within the first 12 months of their being eligible to do so, and just 54 percent are licensed before turning 18 years old. Low-income and minority teenagers disproportionately fall into the category of those without a license.
"Driving a car was the big thing for kids in America once they became a certain age," said Ryan Avila, owner of Essex-based ABC Driver Education, which has seven schools throughout the Baltimore region. "I don't think it's quite that status symbol or rite of passage anymore. I see more kids apathetic about getting a license."
Nationwide, the trend raises safety concerns as fewer teenagers are taking the more rigorous testing required of those younger than 18 in many states, according to AAA. It also has potential economic implications for teenagers who can't apply for jobs that require a license and can't drive further to find jobs.
Karen Sitnick, head of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, said most teens in Baltimore programs are able to make it to jobs within the city limits because they can use public transportation.
"However, I think if young people were able to get driver's licenses, it could allow them to access employment outside city limits, in the county," she added. "It could expand the work opportunities for young people."
The number of 16-year-olds who received Maryland licenses fell from about 21,700 in 1995 to about 6,000 last year, according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. The number of 17-year-olds who received Maryland licenses went from more than 33,700 in 1995 to fewer than 28,100 in 2012.
The reasons vary based on socioeconomic status and necessity, according to the AAA study.
Nearly 45 percent of survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 20 said not having a car was a major factor in their decision to delay getting a license. Thirty-six percent in the AAA survey said costs, including the price of gas, were factors.
Meeting education requirements for new drivers can be "an expensive venture," said Ragina C. Averella, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Driver's education classes in public schools used to be the primary way novice drivers learned, she said, but most schools no longer offer the courses.
Private-sector driving lessons in Maryland can range from $240 to nearly $500, according to AAA.
Tiffany Whitfield, manager of One Way Driving Academy on North Howard Street in Baltimore's Remington neighborhood, said many students begin driver's education courses — which are required for all new drivers in Maryland, regardless of age — only after an extended effort to raise the $300 to pay for the course.
"If they are young and they haven't been in, it's because they were working, or their parents weren't going to pay for it," Whitfield said. "Driving school isn't cheap, so they had to do a little saving."
In households with less than $20,000 income, only 25 percent of teens had obtained a license by 18, according to the AAA study. In households making more than $100,000, that figure rose to 79 percent.
Sixty-seven percent of white teens had obtained a license by age 18, while only 37 percent of black teens and 29 percent of Hispanic teens had, the study found.
Some respondents to the AAA survey didn't view a driver's license as necessary.
Nearly 40 percent said they had delayed getting a driver's license because they could get around without driving, while 35 percent said they "just didn't get around to" obtaining one.
For Gabrielle Jones, 26, the decision not to get a license until a few years ago was partly about convenience, partly about fear.
"I was ridiculously afraid of driving," said Jones, who eventually conquered her fears at One Way Driving Academy, where she now works.
Jones, who lives in downtown Baltimore, also said much of what she wanted and needed as a student at Western High School was accessible to her through public transportation. Or she could get a ride from her mother or walk.
"I have a lot of friends who got their licenses at 17, 18, 19," she said. "It was people who live downtown."
Some traffic safety experts have raised concerns that teens who delay seeking driver's licenses miss out on stricter "graduated driver licensing" or GDL requirements that states mandate for teenagers under 18.
"There's a segment of this generation missing opportunities to learn under the safeguards that GDL provides," said Averella.
In Maryland, laws are stricter. Anyone seeking a license for the first time must pass the test to earn a learner's permit and then — after nine months and 60 hours on the road — he or she receives a provisional license. That license must be held for 18 months before a permanent license can be issued, state officials said. Moving violations start the waiting periods anew. However, according to officials, those 25 and older have fewer driving hours to complete.
Testing demands — including the graduated licensing requirement imposed in 1999 — are a factor in the declining number of teens pursuing licenses, said Buel Young, an MVA spokesman. Young specifically mentioned a license requirement enacted through legislation in 2011 that requires new drivers to complete a skills test not only in an enclosed course, but in real traffic.
"It's word of mouth," Young said. "People now know that the test is no longer a closed course, and they are actually taken out, and it makes people think about whether they are actually ready to take the test."
Eric Candia, 16, of Highlandtown said he waited a few months after turning 15 years and 9 months — the minimum age — to seek a learner's permit. "I just didn't get around to it. I was busy at the time," he said.
Grant Rebstock, 16, of Pasadena, also got a late start. He said he and a friend took the learner's permit test before studying or taking driver's education classes, and both failed. He decided to study before trying again.
Rebstock also said he has a friend in his neighborhood who can drive, which diminished the need to get behind the wheel himself. Now that he is working to complete the driving hours needed for a provisional license, he wishes he had started earlier, he said. "I didn't really think about how much time really went into all of it," he said.
Though some public schools connect students with local private instructors, many teens are now left to figure out the process by themselves. Avila, of ABC Driver Education, said many teenagers show up for driver's education without knowing the rules.
"And before they know it, they are 17, 18, 19 before they get a license," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.
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