Study: Some teens aren't that driven to drive
LANCASTER — Briana Phillips turned 16 in August, but is in absolutely no rush to get her driver’s license.
In an effort to nudge her forward, her mother, Cat Phillips, got her the Pennsylvania driver’s manual last March.
“When we find it, she’s probably going to have to wipe the dust off of it,” Cat Phillips said wryly.
The Hempfield High School junior said she expects to get her learner’s permit at some point, but for now she’s busy with powder-puff football practice, Rugby Club, her studies and her part-time job at a pizza shop.
She is one of many teenagers who, faced with what was once considered to be an important rite of passage — obtaining a driver’s license at the very first opportunity — are saying, “Whatever.”
“I want to wait until I can afford to buy a car,” Briana said. “What’s the point of having a license if you don’t have a car?”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the state in 1999 had nearly 154,000 licensed drivers who were 16 or 17.
By last year, that number had dropped by nearly half, to 79,383.
A recent national study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that fewer than half — 44 percent — of teens now get their driver’s licenses within the year after they become eligible to do so.
Just over half — 54 percent — get their licenses before they turn 18 (the percentage is significantly higher for teens living in high-income households).
Two decades ago, the AAA study noted, two-thirds of teens were licensed by their 18th birthdays.
Of course, there still are plenty of teenagers getting licensed as soon as the law allows.
But in visits last week to two schools — suburban Hempfield High School and McCaskey East High School in Lancaster — it was easy to find teens who were delaying their entry into America’s car culture.
This has worrying implications, the AAA study maintained: If young drivers wait until they’re 18 to get their licenses, they won’t be subject to graduated driver licensing (GDL) requirements.
In Pennsylvania, this means they won’t need to put in 65 documented hours of driving practice.
They’ll be unfettered by the restrictions placed on drivers under 18.
Pennsylvania instituted its GDL program in 1999.
Isabel Bentz, owner of A-1 Mumma’s Driving School in Lancaster, said teenagers who live with their parents tend to get more support as they acquire the skills they need behind the wheel.
“It’s kind of scary” that drivers, on turning 18, could get licensed with “zero driving experience,” she said, adding, “but maybe on the other hand, you’re more mature. ... One would hope.”
PennDOT spokeswoman Jan T. McKnight said that while “people who wait until 18 or older to obtain their driver’s license are not subject to the GDL requirements, it is impossible to predict whether they will be more crash-prone than those who go through the program. We do know that the GDL program has dramatically reduced the crash and fatality numbers for 16- and 17-year-olds over the past 15 years. Driving is a skill that improves with practice.”
Brian Gallagher, principal of Solanco High School, is somewhat bemused by the attitudes of today’s teens to driving.
When he was in high school, he recalled, “The day you turned 16, you wanted to take your driver’s test. ... If they made you wait one day, it was horrible.
“I couldn’t name a friend who wasn’t ready to drive the day he turned 16. ... It was such a milestone that we all looked forward to.”
Gallagher said that parking lot duty at his school used to be a challenge, as student-driven cars came and went from all directions. Now, he said, his school’s student parking lot is “maybe half as full as it was three years ago.”
And he said he hears regularly from parents who tell him their kids just aren’t that driven to drive.
“It’s an interesting change in the culture.”
He and others who work with teens —and teens themselves — say a variety of factors may be behind the change.
Interestingly, none of the dozen or so teens interviewed cited the demands of the GDL program as one of those factors.
J.P. McCaskey High School senior Tiffany Doll, 17, and McCaskey East High School senior Deja Manning, 18, said that they and other students might be more anxious to drive if high schools still offered driver education classes.
Gallagher noted that up until several years ago, driver education was a mandatory part of the curriculum for 10th-graders at Solanco High School.
But because of budget cuts and the demands on the academic day, it’s been replaced by a voluntary online course.
Many other high schools have gone the same route.
“We were putting it in front of them for 45 days,” Gallagher noted, suggesting that it may be a case of out of sight, out of mind.
He and others said there likely are economic factors at work, too.
State figures show that the unemployment rate among teens ages 16-19 in the second quarter of this year stood at 26 percent. When teens don’t have part-time jobs, they may not be able to cover the costs of gas and car insurance.
And even when they’re employed, those costs can be daunting.
“With minimum wage, it’s hard to fill up your gas tank,” Tiffany Doll said.
Larissa Conn, 17, a Hempfield High School junior, knows that buying and maintaining a car is an expensive proposition.
She has a job at a fast-food restaurant, and intends to go for her learner’s permit, but only “after I get a good amount of money in my bank account.”
Ben Naumann, 16, a junior at Hempfield, actually passed his driving exam last week.
But he had his permit for nearly 11 months before he got his license (he turns 17 on Thursday).
He was content to get rides with friends.
He believes getting one’s driver’s license is “still a pretty big deal.”
But he also thinks teens may not feel so compelled to drive because interacting electronically — via text-messaging and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook — is so much easier than actually getting together.
When he plays Xbox with friends, Ben said, “You don’t need a license to go out and do that. You can stay in your own house and connect online.”
Francheska Varela, 17, a senior at McCaskey East, agreed that there’s less of a need to socialize in person. When she and a friend watch “The Vampire Diaries,” they text each other during the TV show.
Gallagher, of Solanco, said that he wanted to drive as a teen because his parents weren’t inclined to chauffeur him everywhere he wanted to go. “This generation of parents are more willing to do it,” he said.
And it’s not necessarily a matter of helicopter parents catering to their precious dears: For busy parents and kids, 20 minutes in the car, on the way home from band or sports practice, may be the only time they get to be together.
“It’s amazing how many kids, how structured their day is, from the time they get up to the time they go to sleep,” Gallagher said.
Cat Phillips loves spending any time she can with her daughter. But she works full time, and when she cannot drive Briana somewhere, she worries about her daughter getting rides with friends. “I’d be way grateful if she would get her license.”
“It baffles me,” she said, of her daughter’s nonchalance toward getting behind the wheel. “The day I turned 16, I was driving.”
Denuel Jarba, a 17-year-old McCaskey senior who’s aiming to study international business in college, said she has more pressing concerns — her classes, her role in the school Senate, her part-time job at a local supermarket — than learning to drive.
“My schedule is full,” Denuel said.
Francheska Varela agreed: “I’m more worried about my education first. My driver’s license can wait until later.”
They and other city students said they find it easy to get around the city, and while it’s a hassle sometimes to rely on public buses, they are accustomed to doing so.
Darius Stuckey, 17, is a senior at Hempfield who is on the school’s football, basketball and track teams. He said he’ll probably pursue a driver’s license after graduation.
He has neither the time for, nor any interest in, driving now, he said. “I feel like it’s more of a responsibility than a privilege.”
Mark Reinhardt, the Grade 12 principal at Hempfield High School, said his youngest son was 17 when “he finally got his license.”
He said he thinks some teens might be “a little afraid” of the responsibility that driving requires.
The potential dangers — of driving while under the influence, of driving while texting — have been drilled into teenagers. Even with their natural inclination toward invincibility, the message may be seeping in.
Hempfield junior Kiki Vassil, 16, said she wants her license, but her parents “want to make sure I’m mature enough to understand that driving is a big responsibility.”
She admits to being a little apprehensive about driving.
“It’s not something to take lightly,” she said, adding, “Not everyone’s ready to drive by the age of 16.”
Kaylee Givler, however, is eager to get her driver’s license.
On May 28, when she turned 16, she left school early to get her learner’s permit. The Hempfield junior is eligible to take her driving test in two months.
Said Givler: “I can’t wait for these two months to be up, to be more independent.”