Hitting the Brakes: Why Less Teens are Getting Their Licenses

By Cole Purvis
Teens driving car

There are few moments that ignite a sense of freedom and excitement quite like your first time driving alone as a teen with your license. That initial journey from your childhood driveway marked a commencement into the (somewhat) liberated world of near adulthood. No more would you be at the mercy of someone else’s schedule for transportation. Now, you were free to drive anywhere you wanted and at any time, within reason of course.

For a long time, this sentiment rang true for many. More recently, however, there has been a growing number of teenagers choosing to not get their licenses despite being of age. In fact, according to data from the Youth Risk Behaviors Surveillance System, the percentage of high school seniors with a driver’s license decreased by approximately 25% from 1980 to 2020. But what has caused this dramatic change overtime? Let’s explore what teens and young adults have to say on the matter, why they’re choosing to wait and how we can best support them in their decision.

REASON 1: The Responsibility

From traffic jams and careless drivers to wild animals and thunderstorms, there are a variety of hazards that drivers must be prepared to navigate on an everyday basis. For many teens, this sense of responsibility can feel like too much too fast and can elicit feelings of fear and anxiety.

A local mom said, “My son is turning 15 this month and does not want to drive. We had him take a spin on our property a couple of times and he did great, but the thought of ‘real driving’ on the road makes him anxious.”

Many can overcome this apprehension in little time while others take much longer, but neither one is wrong. Getting into the driver’s seat too soon could worry everyone involved. What is most important is that your teen is comfortable and confident before getting on the road.

“I never looked at driving as a right but rather as a privilege,” said an anonymous source, who recently got their license at the age of 20.“Waiting until I was completely prepared gave me peace of mind knowing that I could keep both myself and others safe.”

REASON 2: Conveniences of the Modern World

As technology continues to advance, the world seemingly shrinks with each passing day. The trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic unearthed just how much we could accomplish from our homes. The teenagers of today are the first to grow up in a society where groceries, clothes, fully cooked meals and just about anything can be delivered to our front doors. Even without a license, transportation is readily available through ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

A local mom shared that her children seemingly had all they needed in the comfort of their own home during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, which she believes made them wait a little longer before getting their licenses. They can have items delivered to their doorsteps instead of using a vehicle to retrieve them.

REASON 3: Today’s Economy

A report from PBS in 2017 suggested economics play a big role in the declining number of licensed teens — a point of view that is just as valid today. As inflation rates have only increased in recent years, so have the costs associated with driving. More and more teen drivers (or their parents) are faced with historically high gas prices and insurance premiums, not to mention the price of the vehicle itself. This can, in turn, deter them from getting a driver’s license in the first place.

A Professional Opinion

Jeanna Mastrodicasa, long-time Gainesville resident and author of the book, “Connecting to the Net.generation: What Higher Education Professionals Need to Know about Today’s Students,” provided her expert opinion on the matter. She believes that this trend is a microcosm of the belief that young people are maturing at a slower pace compared to previous generations.

“There is less pressure to become a fully independent adult at 18, and there is actually a risk aversion here from young people who don’t want the responsibility of driving on the road,” she said. “Overall, it just shows that families have changed — more college graduates come back home to live, parents drive kids all over and teens don’t have paid employment. Kids are staying kids longer and families are accommodating that shift.”

Their Timelines

Despite their several reasons for waiting, plenty of teens are still adamant about getting their license. However, many are choosing to operate on their own timelines.

When asked about the benefits of driving, a local teen, despite not having their license yet, explained, “You get independence and the opportunity to do things for yourself or with friends. You can get a job, hang out with friends and you’re able to go places without needing to rely on others.” As for a timeline, the teen elaborated, “I want to get it before I go to college or at least soon after. I don’t want to wait too long.”

So, parents, don’t fret if your child isn’t expressing the same interest you once did to get your own driver’s licenses. The world around us is constantly evolving, and the benefit of getting a license at 16 may not be as obvious as it once was. The best thing we can do is be supportive of this new generation. It is our responsibility to provide our teens with the time and resources necessary to help them prepare for the roads ahead.

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