SPOKANE — When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to drive. I’d make any excuse to grab the keys. Low on milk? I’ll get it! Then I’d take the long way to the store, which ensured more time to be seen behind the wheel. Driving was cool, but it seems to be losing its cachet. At some point, we may need to adapt our licensing laws to this reality.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that neighborhood teens were awfully casual about getting their driver’s licenses. Some waited until they were 17 and beyond. I thought it bizarre, until my son hit 15 1/2 , the age at which he was eligible for a learner’s permit. He, too, seemed disinterested. Whenever we practiced, it was at my urging.
Apparently, he isn’t alone.
A USA Today article from last year notes that some teens are waiting longer because they can stay connected to the outside world without leaving the house.
“Kids can entertain themselves completely at home,” said Hannah Hart, a 17-year-old from Atlanta. “People aren’t going to the movies as much. People haven’t been going to arcades. If I didn’t have a computer or have a cellphone, I would definitely push myself more to get a license to go out and do things.”
A recent report on National Public Radio reiterated this cultural shift, with one young woman saying, “When I think of my dream car, I draw a blank. Then I reach for my phone.”
The number of 16-year-olds with a driver’s license peaked in 2001. Only 54 percent of today’s 18-year-olds report having a license, according to an American Automobile Association survey.
It’s possible that graduated driver’s licenses have helped to dull driving appetites, since teens under 18 years old have restrictions placed on their driving. In the first six months, they can’t have passengers under the age of 20, except for immediate family.
After that, they’re limited to three passengers under the age of 20 until they’re 18. Plus, they can’t drive unsupervised from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for the first year.
Graduated licenses were introduced in Washington state in 2001, and were controversial at first. But as Katie Campbell, a prescient Mead High School student, told The Spokesman-Review at the time, “I think it won’t be that big of a deal in the long run. It’ll just be something kids are used to.”
Not only are they used to it, they’re awfully accepting. But this can be a good thing. While traffic fatalities remain the top killer of teens, the number has dropped significantly since the advent of graduated licenses and beefed-up training requirements. We could’ve headed off many tragedies by doing this sooner.
Washington teens now need 50 hours of behind-the-wheel experience, with 10 hours at night. Driving schools have become more prominent since public schools have dropped the subject, and they do a more thorough job. My son’s private class cost $450, and that could be another reason teens delay getting a license. The price tag is a significant hurdle for low-income families, but it’s money well-spent. I had no professional training before getting a license — just some class time and practice with simulators.
However, as more teens wait to get licenses, the benefits of the graduated version become diminished. Novices are novices no matter their age.
Will that force legislators to shift the restrictions accordingly? If history is any judge, we’ll probably have to endure a lot of carnage first. We had decades of distressing data on teen drivers before graduated licenses were introduced.
That’s just how we roll in the land of the free.
Gary Crooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org