Why Teens Hesitate to Drive
Busy lives and licensing requirements are among the reasons teens wait to get behind the wheel
Seventeen-year-old Rahul Bhatia keeps a busy schedule at Triangle Math and Science Academy in Cary. His junior year is filled with the usual academic work, as well as several clubs that require his time and attendance.
His increased school involvement comes at an age when teenagers are typically eager to get behind the wheel of a car, where they can exercise some freedom and demonstrate their responsibility. But Bhatia has steered clear of getting his driver’s license.
“The main reason is I don’t need a car,” Bhatia says. “If I do need to be driven, I can always have one of my friends drive me, or my parents take me if I need to go anywhere.”
He’s not alone. Once viewed as a rite of passage, a driver’s license isn’t necessarily a hot ticket today. Parents and teens cite a variety of reasons for this, but the decline is clear. According to a University of Michigan study published in January 2016, the percentage of high school seniors with a driver's license dropped from 85 percent to 71 percent between 1996 and 2015.
The trend toward delaying licensing causes concern among safety experts, who worry that young drivers are missing the benefits of graduated drivers' licensing programs.
“If teens wait, you get a little bit of a benefit because they’re a little bit older, a little more mature,” says Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. “But in the long run, they miss out on the GDL (graduated driver’s license) and the benefits of the extended parent supervision.”
Why Teens Wait
Graduated drivers' licensing program laws vary by state, but North Carolina’s program requires teen drivers who are at least age 15 and under age 18 to earn a limited learner’s permit, limited provisional license and full provisional license — in that order — before earning a full driver’s license at age 18. The state also requires 60 hours of parent-supervised driving (10 of which must be at night).
All of the stages and the two-year procedure seem to discourage some would-be drivers. In the University of Michigan study, 37 percent of eligible teens said they were “too busy” to put in the required time.
But some parents see a benefit to waiting. Carla Tiller of Apex recognized that when her daughter, Emily, was in high school, she was in no hurry to get her license. Now a sophomore at North Carolina State University, Emily set a goal of driving to school for her final year of high school. Knowing she would have to commute from Apex to her school in Raleigh every morning during rush hour on Interstate 440, the Tillers took some precautions. After lots of test drives with Mom in the car, Emily was on her way.
“It was one of the smartest decisions we made,” Tiller says. “They’re more mature because they’re 17. You retain the knowledge and control of where they are and your insurance doesn’t go up for another year.”
Those weren’t the only advantages.
“Another benefit to having that extra year to drive your kids is you have that time alone in the car,” she says. “That’s when they talk to you the most — more of that one-on-one time. It allows you to remain involved an extra year, to have conversations and to guide them on issues.”
The second most-cited reason for waiting was the cost. In 2015, the average car insurance rate in the U.S. for a 16-year-old with state minimum liability limits was $2,593 per year, according to the University of Michigan study.
“Driving is already out of reach for many teens, between paying for a vehicle, insurance, gas, taking driver’s ed …” Goodwin says. ‘Unfortunately, it’s becoming something that is more often only available to well-off families.”
Another likely factor that limits teen interest in driving pertains to the digital world in which they live. While difficult to quantify through statistics, experts believe there is a correlation.
“Much of the social contact between teens happens online with text messaging, social media and multiplayer games,” Goodwin says. “So people don’t necessarily need to be together, which reduces the need for driving.”
There is little doubt, however, that busy lifestyles do play a role. Teens are often spread thin among year-round sports, jobs and community service.
Wakefield High School junior Sarah Wilson of Raleigh knows all about being too busy. She could have taken the driver’s education classroom course in the fall of her freshman year, but she would have missed a substantial part of her school volleyball season. She finally got her learner’s permit last July at age 17. Once she had that, Sarah’s mother quickly saw the value of the graduated driver’s licensing program.
“Having driven with her, I understand from just driving in our area why it takes so long,” Mary Beth Wilson says. “I really think it’s a good thing. There are so many constraints on them, and the traffic is infinitely worse than when I learned to drive in 1984.”
What Teens Miss Out On
Beyond busy schedules, expenses and changing social landscapes, it appears that some teens wait until they turn 18 just to avoid the requirements of the graduated drivers' licensing program. In addition to the 60 hours of supervised driving, there are nighttime curfews and restrictions on how many passengers they can have in their car.
Experts warn, however, that skipping those learning stages might not be a good idea.
“Just because your brain is 18 doesn’t mean your experience, ability and behavior behind the wheel is that of (an experienced) 18-year-old,” says Tiffany Wright, a public relations manager at AAA Carolinas. “The earlier you start, the better.”
Wright's advice to parents sounds like a warning.
“You’re not only putting your teenager at risk, you’re putting the lives of the driving public at risk when you don’t emphasize that they need experience,” she points out.
Bhatia has considered that bit of wisdom. “That is something I question sometimes,” he says. “I might not just be putting just myself in danger, but also others who are on the road or in the car with me.”
He also admits that, if he had it to do over again, he might take a different approach.
“Yes, I do have some regrets about not taking driver’s ed at all,” Bhatia says. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a bad decision.”
Learn more about North Carolina’s graduated driver’s licensing program at ncdot.gov/dmv/license-id/driver-licenses/new-drivers.
Kurt Dusterberg of Apex is a father of two teens and covers the Carolina Hurricanes for NHL.com. He’s also the author of “Journeymen: 24 Bittersweet Tales of Short Major League Sports Careers.”