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Teenagers aren’t speeding to get their driver’s licenses

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, at 7:56 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, at 9:39 a.m.

Driver’s licenses may offer the first taste of adulthood, but they’re starting to lose their flavor for teenagers.

No doubt, teens are still hungry for the open highway, but they’re putting off getting their licenses in the digital age when connecting with friends through social media is cheaper than paying $3 and more a gallon for gasoline.

“All indications are the decline in teen driving is a factor of the economic downturn,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “A deep recession like we’ve been through has had a disproportionate effect on young people.”

A recent study reveals almost half of all budding adults are waiting until they’re 18 to get licenses. Forty-four percent were licensed within a year of the time they were first eligible for licensure in their state.

The reasons varied, but cost loomed as a big reason. The study found teens who lived in a household with an income of at least $60,000 were more than twice as likely to get their licenses by the time they were 18 than someone who lived in a household with an income of less than $20,000.

Other teens said that they were too busy or too nervous, or that it was just easier –– and less expensive –– to hook up with friends online. Sometimes they blamed obstructionist parents.

Count Malik Delva of Olathe among the teens who just didn’t need cars to get around.

Delva, 18, is just now ready to get his license. He never needed a car before, since he could walk to school, walk to work, walk to the store and walk to a friend’s house.

“I didn’t need to drive anywhere. I am cool with physical activity,” Delva said. “I told my mom not to worry about getting me a car, because I walk everywhere. I am not going to take my feet for granted.”

Growing up in Miami in a family with Cuban roots, Delva never had any expectation that he would be handed a car early in life.

“If I don’t have the money for it, why should I make my mom spend it?” he said. “She shouldn’t have to do that for me when I can do it for myself.”

Nathan Fox, an 18-year-old from Gardner, is another teen not driven by a compulsion to get behind the wheel. Driving hasn’t been a priority so far.

“I prefer riding my bike or walking around town. It keeps me in shape,” said Fox, a distance runner. “It’s great exercise to get around on a bike.”

It’s difficult to find reliable national data on how many more teens are waiting to get their licenses, although the American Automobile Association says numbers 20 years ago indicated two-thirds of teens were licensed by the time they were 18.

The latest finding was backed up by another study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC study found that the proportion of high school seniors with driver’s licenses dropped to 73 percent in 2010 from 85 percent in 1996. Most of that decline occurred since 2006, just before the start of the recession.

The latest survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety provides one of the more comprehensive looks at teen licensing. It answers key questions about the numbers of teens who are delaying their decisions to get licenses and why.

The survey of 1,039 young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 also raises important questions about whether graduated driver’s license laws in all 50 states are effective at protecting teens on the highway.

If teens are waiting as long as the study suggests, then they are skirting laws that are supposed to gradually build driving experience and teach young drivers how to avoid risky conditions, experts said.

“A serious number of people are getting licensed outside what has become a very, very effective law,” said Bruce Hamilton, spokesman for the AAA foundation.

Generally, teens under the age of 18 must get graduated driver’s licenses, which ease them into driving by giving them time at the wheel while gradually lifting limits on cellphones, passengers and night driving.

The graduated licensing law has been credited for saving thousands of teen lives nationally, including in Missouri and Kansas. Missouri has had graduated driver’s licenses since 2001, and Kansas toughened its graduated license law in 2010.

But the study suggests that states might want to follow New Jersey’s lead and expand those laws to cover novice drivers at 19 or 20 if young adults are waiting longer to getting their licenses.

“If teens are deciding to wait, then they lose the benefit of those protections,” said Arthur Goodwin, a traffic safety researcher at the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina. “To the extent that’s happening, we are concerned.”

But the insurance industry thinks that any time licensing is delayed is a good thing. The insurance institute, for example, doesn’t see crashes involving older teens as a significant problem.

“Delaying licensure is a benefit,” said Rader, of the insurance institute. “When teens are more mature when they start to drive, they’re less likely to get into a crash.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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