From American Graffiti to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the thrill and pleasure associated with driving a car took time to evolve. Driving wasn’t always this way. Driving in the U.S. during the 1900s was simply too arduous to enjoy. During that time, the focus on driving was simply making it to the destination — between the pitiful roads and the car. In essence, driving was something a traveler had to endure.
To exemplify this, the Model T Ford was easy to drive — most people back then didn’t know how to drive anything but a horse. It had three pedals are on the floor but didn’t come with a starter. The engine was started with a hand crank on the front of the car. If the levers that controlled the engine were not set the right way, the engine could backfire, or spin the wrong way resulting in broken arms. The Model T is in high gear by default, so if the parking/clutch lever was not engaged, the car had a tendency to run over the operator when started.
But alas, as roads improved and cars transformed into muscled mobile living rooms, driving became pleasurable. With that evolution, the ability to drive became a coveted rite of passage for many. Whether for convenience, ownership satisfaction, or simply having a personal space to listen to music, getting a license and driving a car became synonymous with freedom, independence and the portal to adulthood.
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In his USA Today article, “Many teens taking a pass on a driver’s license,” Larry Copeland reflects on the growing driving transformation. A generation ago, any 16-year-old would have rushed to get their license — instead, many of today’s 16-year-olds who still don’t have licenses are now the new norm. They move in groups and ascribe to ride-sharing activities such as taking an Uber. Some have parents who will drive them around. Somehow, driving just isn’t as alluring as it once was.
According to National Geographic writer, Marianne Lavelle, in her article “U.S. Teenagers Are Driving Much Less: 4 Theories About Why,” U.S. teenagers just aren’t as into driving as they used to be. So much so that Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasters acknowledged dramatically altered projections for transportation energy use over the next 25 years. Partly due to a slower population growth, but more so because young people are not only driving less than teens did a generation ago, they aren’t even getting licenses. Other countries like Canada, South Korea and Japan are seeing similar shifts.
The impact of this revolution is reverberating from the auto industry down to energy and transportation sectors. What is behind this socio-behavioral change?
Lavelle cites several theories on why there are less and less young drivers.
▪ Virtual access diminishes the need for wheels. In fact, the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan says that the percent of young drivers is inversely proportional to the percent of internet users. Virtual contact reduces the need for real-time contact. Kids can put off meeting (face to face) for days and weeks. There is less of a sense of urgency about meeting them — they just “talk” on Snapchat or Instagram. In the end, there is less need to drive to gatherings.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that from 1983-2010, the number of 19-year-old drivers fell from 87 percent to 70 percent; and for 17-year-olds, the drop went from 69 percent to 46 percent.
▪ Blame the economy — it’s just too complicated to drive. From a financial aspect, finding a job as a teen these days is challenging. Without a job, they can’t afford to buy the car, let alone the gas. Car insurance rates — especially in urban areas, has skyrocketed. The cost of tires and general maintenance has also increased.
Copeland reports on the role of family income. Sixty percent of kids in households with annual incomes of at least $60,000 got licenses within one year of their state’s minimum age (72 percent were licensed before age 18). In contrast, 16 percent of kids in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000, got licenses within one year of becoming eligible (25 percent were licensed before turning 18).
The addition of growing student loan burdens create further challenges for working young adults to afford cars and car maintenance.
▪ It’s a lifestyle choice. Many young people simply choose not to drive. From pragmatic reasons or environmental reasons, many Generation Y members feel that driving is not for them. Some are now able to work from home. Others prefer to carpool with those who do have cars. Some choose to live closer to work and school so they can bike or walk. And some say it is a matter of efficiency — they can make more use of their time by using public transit. When asked, 21.5 percent of young adults without licenses said they did not plan on ever getting one.
▪ Too busy. A lot of teens say that haven’t had the time to get a license. While getting a license is on their to-do list, kids say they simply have other priorities. This is the procrastination generation. It seems like expectations aren’t what they used to be, and so whatever happens, happens. They always manage to figure it out, even if its plan D.
▪ Changing love affair with cars. Today’s teens don’t seem to have the automotive passion that many of their parents did. Although today’s cars can do so much more than drive, these all but digitalized vehicles are much more daunting to approach, making it harder to tinker with or repair.
▪ The lost “open road.” With so many people on the road, cars have become simply a tool to get from point A to point B. Expressways, texting, traffic snarls and road rage have destroyed the bucolic drive. It is scary out there.
In “Why aren’t young people getting drivers’ licenses? Too much hassle!,” Brad Plumer of the Washington Post says that despite the impressive data, the transformation still pertains to the minority of Americans. About 84.7 percent of young Americans ages 19 to 39 drivers’ licenses. And the majority of non-licensed respondents said that they would probably get a license within the next five years. Yet, the number of young non-drivers in the United States has been rising steadily, a trend that has implications for everything from transportation policies to future auto sales.
This isn’t the first time Americans have pared back their driving habits — after the 1970s OPEC oil crisis, miles driven fell about 6 percent, but eventually climbed back by the end of the 1982 recession. This current drop however, appears more significant. In addition, aging Baby Boomers (who make up the majority of Americans over the age of 55) tend to drive less, so aging of the United States population also plays a role.
Christina Rogers and Gautham Nagesh, in their WSJ article “Driving Is Losing Its Allure for More Americans,” shows the decline in American drivers in all age brackets. This shift has auto makers scrambling to ramp up investments in alternative mobility services such car-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers — with a crash rate four times higher than older drivers. Teens tend to overrate their driving skills and underrate risks on the road. They also have more trouble multitasking — talking to friends, listening to the radio and texting can be disastrous.
In her article, “Youth Driving Laws Limit Even the Double Date,” New York Times writer Kate Zernike says that since 1996, graduated driving laws — those which require periods of supervision and probationary driving before teens can get a full license — have made it more difficult for young people to get licenses. In addition to behind-the-wheel training, there are online course requirements, and ultimately daylight driving restrictions.
With more awareness of the disasters associated with drunk driving, distracted driving and fatigue, many teens (and parents) are opting for car services. There are no parking hassles and of course the subversive freedom from the drinking and driving concern. Kids can go out, party and not have to worry about driving home drunk or high.
Kids may no longer have that burning desire to drive but here are some closing thoughts from one ride-share driver — Scott Van Maldegiam, who loves to drive. He says he loves the opportunity to meet new people. Some of the worst rides become his best stories. And, sometimes, driving has renewed his faith in humanity.
Will driving continue its downward spiral? Who knows. But I know that will always recall with fondness, the calm of driving on an empty Sunday road, great tunes, the wind on my face, the thrill of using a map to get to an obscure destination, and the mesmerizing way the sound of the pavement unlocked the doors to some great parent- child conversations.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.