Why are teenagers driving less?

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, January 25, 2010 23:01 EDT
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I have to agree with Atrios that it’s really surprising to see such a dramatic decline in the number of 16-year-olds who are getting their driver’s licenses. Of course, he’s remembering a suburban upbringing, where being carless was a trap. I was living in a small town in high school, which means you could get everywhere in town on a bike if you wanted to, but everyone had licenses as soon as they could anyway, because that’s just what was done. Getting me into the driver’s seat was as much about setting my parents free as myself, especially since we had to make a lot of weekend trips to El Paso to visit my dad. As soon as they could, my parents let me make that drive by myself so they could avoid the method we had prior, which was meeting halfway in Van Horn for the trade-off. My mother treated my driver’s license like it was her ticket to freedom—the end of having to drive me to El Paso, to my after school activities, and even the end of having to get up with me at 3 or 4 in the morning to drive me to school so I could catch the bus to our speech tournaments in other small towns. (The definition of a town close enough to drive to for competitive events in Texas is way different than elsewhere, I’d imagine—we thought a mere 2 hour drive was a relief compared to some of the trips we took.) When my mom realized she could make me drive to the grocery store and run her errands for her, she took advantage of that, too.

According to this article, that situation has reversed in a lot of families, and kids aren’t driving because their parents are only too willing to do all the driving for them. I have no reason to think that must be the answer, but it seems as good an explanation as anything, because the drop in teenaged drivers is astounding.

Federal data released Friday underscore a striking national shift: 30.7 percent of 16-year-olds got their licenses in 2008, compared with 44.7 percent in 1988.

Of course, the Washington Post reporter mostly asks people from the D.C. area about this, and that’s not going to tell us much about what this does for both child and parent freedom, because in D.C. you can get around with public transportation. Thus, you don’t get a really clear picture of what’s driving this trend. I fear that the WaPo is right, and a lot of parents are simply electing to drive their children around until they leave home. If so, that’s really too bad, and a startling indicator that the trend is towards restricting children’s freedom at later and later ages, even at great expense to the parents’ well-being. The safety thing puzzles me—until I started watching Buffy battle her mother over a license, the idea that a parent thought they could really keep a kid safe by delaying the license until 18 (where in many states you can get it with a simple test and no training) didn’t even occur to me. On the contrary, my parents and a lot of parents that I knew started teaching their kids to drive months, sometimes years before they were eligible for a permit, on the grounds that more training was safer. That makes sense to me.

You can’t really get around the learning curve on learning to drive by starting later, so arguments about the car itself being dangerous ring false to me, especially since a minor driver who is learning gets more training and supervision. Therefore, I’m inclined to wonder if the issue isn’t the car itself, but the freedom it grants kids that live in areas that don’t have adequate public transportation. Like Atrios, my experience growing up was that getting your license was as close to a rite of passage as adolescents get in our culture—with it came later curfews, less checking in, and more general freedom to make your own choices. An adulthood light, to prepare you for living on your own. A car (borrowed from parents or owned outright) was sort of the lead-up to having your own place, since it bought you a measure of freedom and privacy. Most of my friends and myself didn’t really start to date in earnest until after we got the license and the freedom to participate in the great American tradition of sexual experimentation in parked cars. In El Paso, having a car meant going bowling or to the movies or to a friend’s house without having to get a parent to drive you; in Alpine, it meant being able to explore the countryside, driving out far beyond the eyesight of any other people and goof off, party, or of course, screw around.

Therefore, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that these exact effects are why kids aren’t getting licenses, because parents aren’t letting them, because they fear this freedom. Suspicions that the trend is leaning towards parents being more controlling of their children are difficult to prove, but there are indicators beyond stereotypes of soccer moms. For instance, there was a 40 year decline in kids walking to school, down from 42% of kids to 16%. Which is crazy, since there are fewer housewives on hand to do all that scuttling around. Everyone who’s lived next to an elementary or junior high school that wasn’t built for that amount of traffic can tell you what a nightmare it creates. And I’d say that most people nowadays take it as a given that raising kids in the suburbs is “safer” precisely because it limits personal freedom. I usually roll my eyes when people declaim the overscheduling of extracurricular activities—those were the impetus for my growing freedom as a teenager—but if they’re being so tightly supervised when they do these activities, a lot of the value of them is lost.

I really don’t know what to make of this trend. I’m not a psychologist, so I have no opinions on whether or not this intense mollycoddling of children is really going to harm them and their confidence in their own decision-making abilities. It seems like it must—the people I knew in college most unsure of themselves were the ones kept on a tight leash in high school—but who knows if there’s long term damage? But I worry that this trend demonstrates a larger trend towards Americans accepting and even promoting a general loss of freedom and a greater submission to control.

Kind of sad, though. Having my mom take me to the city offices to get my license on my 16th birthday, and then the party we had to celebrate, was a satisfying rite of passage. Of course, if you live in a part of the country that doesn’t require a car to travel very far, the issue is moot. But of course, bringing up kids in an urban environment is being looked upon with suspicion when it’s universally acknowledged (though hardly proven) that suburbs are “safer”.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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