The road less traveled: Fewer teens getting driver’s licenses and hitting the road

More teens are putting off getting driver’s licenses because of cost, friends who can give them lifts, and parents who aren’t thrilled with their children taking to the road at 15 or 16.

06/07/2014 5:21 PM

06/07/2014 5:23 PM

Imani Coker dreamed of getting her license starting in middle school. It was all she could think about for years.

“I can’t wait till I’m 15,” she told her friends.

When 15 arrived, Imani had a change of heart. Driving wasn’t much on her mind anymore.

Now 16, she has yet to even get her learner’s permit.

“Getting my permit leads to getting my license. If I get my license, my parents will suck the fun out of driving by sending me places. I have friends who drive. Not to mention insurance is expensive as heck. The streets are filled with crazy drivers, and I don’t want to become one of them.”

Coker, who lives in Richmond Heights, is among a growing number of teens for whom driving has taken a back seat. So as students start their summer break, many will be catching rides to jobs, camp, the beach, the mall.

Driving has been a traditional rite of passage — learner’s permit at 15, full license at 16. So why are teens putting off what used to be a lifelong dream?

As Coker put it: Too many headaches, not enough benefits.

Coker has plenty of company. According to a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, the number of American teens getting their license is dropping more and more each year. Between 1983 and 2010, the number of 17-year-olds who got a driver’s license plummeted from 69 percent to 46 percent.

Miami-Dade and Broward mirror the national trend. In 2007, for instance, 15,000 16-year-olds got their driver’s license. That number dropped to 11,000 in 2014, according to the Florida Department of Highway and Motor Vehicles.

“As Florida’s population grows, we have noticed a drop in the number of youth licenses,” said John Lucas, a spokesman for the agency.

Twenty years ago, 70 percent of 18-year-olds had their license. Today, only 54 percent do.

But in some cases, it isn’t the teen that’s making the choice.

HIGH COSTS

High gas and insurance prices are taking a huge toll on parents’ decisions to keep their teens in the passenger seat.

“I want to get my daughter a car, but with such high prices, it would be best to wait until the start of the new school year,” said Marie Fernandez of Palmetto Bay, whose daughter Natalie attends Florida Christian School.

A teen driver can be added to either a parent’s insurance policy or start one of his or her own. Either way, Florida requires teens to have insurance.

“It’s usually cheaper to add a teen to his or her parents’ policy rather than buy a separate policy,” said Mike Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute.

Keeping insurance rates down is one reason some parents want their teens to keep their learning permits longer.

But why does a premium soar when teens are added? It’s all in the statistics: Teen drivers 16 to 19 are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group based in Virginia. And adding a teen driver typically increases an insurance premium by 83.94 percent in Florida, according to a study from InsuranceQuotes.com.

Auto insurance companies including Geico, State Farm, Allstate and Liberty Mutual offer various discounts on teen insurance policies.

Good grades? Discount. Educated driver? Discount. Low-mileage driver? Discount. “Driving training” grad? Discount.

Then there’s the cost of gas to worry about, as well as parking, tolls and maintenance costs. But those aren’t the only obstacles.

Household income plays a huge role in whether or not teens will be licensed drivers. In homes with an annual income of $20,000 or less, only 25 percent of teens are likely to get their license. Some 75 percent of teens are likely to get their license if they live in a home with an annual income of $100,000 or more, according to a AAA survey.

Then there’s parental angst over Miami-area traffic as well as distraction from studies. Stephanie Cravez is concerned with the safety and grades of her daughter Jessica Cravez, who attends Killian High. “If her grades are slipping, I take the car keys away, simple as that.”

DRIVER’S ED

Waiting to get a license isn’t necessarily safer, the experts say. “We are worried that those teenagers 18 and over who get their license without [instruction] are missing out on important driving skills and behaviors,” said John Pecchio, AAA Manager of Traffic Safety.

To help, AAA has several programs, including Auto Club South, which is focused on promoting safety and encouraging good driving habits.

Instruction also is available at school, although fewer high schools are offering driver’s education courses because of budget cuts. Forty years ago, almost every student took a driver’s ed course. Now, fewer than 40 percent do, according to a study by Dan Carsen at the Southern Education Desk at WBHM Radio.

Schools in Miami-Dade that have a driving range and permit test preparation include Killian, Ferguson, Hialeah, North Miami Beach, Hialeah-Miami Lakes and Miami Beach high schools. Broward high schools that offer a full driver’s ed range include Coral Glades, Coral Springs, Cypress Bay, Deerfield Beach, Everglades and Plantation.

Juliana Nicholls, 16, who doesn’t have a license, says she would benefit from having a driver’s ed program at her school, Cooper City High. “It would give me more of a driving experience to move me toward getting my license.”

Out on the range, students practice basic skills such as parking, reversing, three-point turns and the essential features of a car with the driving instructor guiding them from the passenger seat.

While in the classroom, students are taught road rules and important tips to being a great driver. Many schools encourage their students to take a driving course on Florida Virtual School as an alternative to a face-to-face driving experience. FLVS’ online driving course can’t teach a student how to drive but offers a drug and alcohol education program for teens to get their learner’s permit. Students have to practice driving on their own in their parents’ cars — which is not part of the course.

“Students learn road rules, complete the drug and alcohol course and prepare for their final permit exams at no cost. Doing this means that the majority of the driving instruction is taught at school, giving parents one less thing to worry about,” said Cathy Ricke, a driver’s ed instructor at Killian High. “Most importantly, students build up their confidence. It’s better for them to learn to drive in a closed course than venturing off onto streets they’ve never driven before.”

So how do teens forgoing a license get around? With other teens that do have a license, of course.

“The majority of my friends drive,” said Cynthia Mejia, 16, who goes to Miami Killian Senior High. “I usually hitch a ride from them since we all live in the same Kendall area.”

Another Killian student, Kelly Alvarez, 17, feels the same way. “Why would I want to have the responsibility and cost of having a car when I have friends who live near me and are willing to drive me around?”

And with texts and tweets, driving to a friend’s house just isn’t as urgent anymore.

Killian student Skylar Agosto, 17, who doesn’t have her license, depends on her parents for transportation. “If my mom can’t go, neither can I.”

A survey by ZipCar, an organization geared toward reducing the amount of cars on the roads using carpooling, found that social media is preferred to getting behind the wheel to meet friends, however. Out of the 294 18-34 year olds interviewed, 68 percent say they would rather spend time with friends online instead of driving to see them.

“The problem with today’s youth isn’t that they are allowing texting to interfere with their driving, it’s that having to drive is interfering with their texting,” said Michael Sivak, research professor and author of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s study. “It is possible that the availability of virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact among young people.”

“Information and mobile technology provide ready alternatives to travel,” said Nancy McGuckin, a travel behavior analyst.

Despite the dropoff in young drivers, some teens still jump at the chance to hit the road.

Justin Leary, 17, of Miami Palmetto Senior High, got his license two days after he turned 16 — only because the DMV was closed on his birthday. He had a new car waiting for him at home. “My parents saw that I was responsible and thought I could handle having my own car.”

TEEN CHAUFFEURS

Killian student Michelle Goldgewicht, 17, also got her car shortly after getting her license. “My grandpa surprised me with a brand new car. He and my parents wanted to give me more responsibility and independence because I earned it.”

There are benefits to having an extra driver in the house.

“Whenever my mom is running late to pick up my brother from practice, I’m the one who has to go get him,” said Sara Matthews, 17, who also goes to Killian. “Having my own car is a huge help to my parents sometimes because I can go to doctor appointments and run last-minute errands by myself.”

Having one teenage driver and a forthcoming driver is a total stress-reliever for single mom Gina Picos, who lives in the Falls area. Driving in this household is definitely a family affair.

“I gave my oldest daughter the privilege to drive because of all of her after-school activities that my mom would have to drive her to. She deserves the independence and freedom that comes along with driving.”

Gaby Alonso, 17, who goes to Coral Reef, is accepting of the responsibility that her mother gives her. “But I pay for my own gas because my parents think some of the costs should be split between us.”

Shortly after Gaby got her license, younger sister Isa Alonso, 15, who also attends Coral Reef Senior High, shortly followed in getting her permit.

“I noticed the freedom and responsibility my sister has with her car. I want that, too.”

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