This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.
By Tanya Kurepina, New Trier High School, and Sierra Lai, Walter Payton High School
Like many high school students, Hinsdale Central junior Hanna Suek spends most of her weekend hours with friends. No matter where she ends her night on Friday or Saturday, she usually texts her parents around 11 p.m. and gives them the time and place where she’d like to be picked up.
Although Suek is 16 years old — the minimum age you can get a restricted driver’s license in Illinois — she doesn’t have a license and doesn’t plan on getting one anytime soon. She’s not alone.
For decades, getting a driver’s license has been considered a rite of passage for teens everywhere. Driving a car—and ditching the parental chauffeurs — equals freedom to some. But for many of today’s teens, wheels can wait.
According to several recent studies, many teens are pumping the brakes on getting their driver’s licenses. In one study, AAA found that just 54 percent of teens are licensed before they turn 18. Forty-four percent got their licenses within a year of turning 16 (or the minimum driving age for their state).
When unlicensed teens were asked why they were delaying the process in the same study, 44 percent said they didn’t have a car. Thirty-six percent cited expensive gas prices, and 35 percent said they “just didn’t get around to it.”
For teens in Chicago, those answers may vary depending on location. Teens who live in or near the city often point to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) when asked about not having their driver’s licenses.
“I would like to learn how to drive. I think it’s a valuable skill, but I don’t have a strong need to right now due to the availability of (the) CTA as a mode of transportation,” said Walter Payton junior Anthony Charletta, who takes public transportation to and from school and on the weekends.
Of course, public transportation isn’t always as accessible in the suburbs. “I think it’s easier for city kids to hold off on getting their licenses because they have public transportation, but in the suburbs, you have to ask a friend or parent (for a ride),” said Suek, the student from Hinsdale Central.
For some suburban students, having a license — and a car of their own — comes with a higher social status. The pressure to have these things could drive some teens to get their licenses.
“Socially, there is a feeling of like, ‘Why don’t you have your license, man?’ And people who can’t afford a car kind of get shunned away,” said New Trier senior and licensed driver Karl Neumann.
Cost is key
On a national level, some experts blame the high costs associated with driving for teens’ reluctance to get a license. Driver’s education fees, insurance, gas and car repairs all add up to major expenses.
Kathy Bernstein, the regional coalition manager for the National Safety Council, said she sees major differences between her generation and today’s teens.
“When I was growing up, everyone got their license when they turned 16,” said Bernstein, who got her license the day she turned 16. “Very few people waited, and those who did did so because they didn’t have the confidence to get behind the wheel.”
Confidence doesn’t seem to be the major problem today, she explained.
A survey by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that about 30 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds identify cost as being a top reason for not getting a driver’s license.
“I don’t have my license because I prefer biking and public transit, and a car would cost too much,” said Nicholas Klise, a senior at Notre Dame Academy who plans to get his license before he goes away to college this fall.
Besides the cost of a car, insurance may be the next biggest expense teen drivers face. And because they’re new to the road, their rates are high. Beth Mosher, director of public affairs at AAA Chicago, explained why.
“Because the risk of a crash is significantly higher for young drivers, particularly during the first year of driving, teens’ insurance rates are often higher than that of their parents,” Mosher said.
Social media takes the wheel
There’s another interesting factor that could be discouraging young drivers: social media. Researchers at the transportation institute have learned that teens who use social media are less likely to own or drive a car.
“Virtual contact, through electronic means, reduces the need for actual contact,” said Michael Sivak, a research professor in the institute’s human factors group. In other words, social media could be replacing the need to hang out with friends in person.
AAA’s Mosher said she’s also noticed the trend: “We think teens have numerous ways to stay connected to their social network now that we’ve never seen in the past, and their need for a car to stay connected to friends has changed.”
Whitney Young senior Jeremy White said he’s seen his friends’ and classmates’ behavior change with social networks and texting.
“Today, more and more kids use their phones to communicate rather than actually hanging out,” he said. “A lot of relationships are held over texts (rather) than face-to-face, and more and more I see kids not being able to stand up for themselves or function without a phone in front of them.
“Does it specifically affect driving? I honestly have no clue, but I could see how it would,” White said.
Klise, the Notre Dame senior, said he’s not so sure about the theory — especially when it comes to his social circle. “I disagree with it because social media does not replace face-to-face (contact) for me and my friends,” he said.
There’s also the long process of getting a driver’s license, and it’s jam-packed with rules. Illinois’ graduated driver licensing program — sometimes referred to as “GDL” — dictates the laws for young drivers. If you’re under 18, there are detailed rules about what times you can be on the road, how many passengers you can have in the car and dozens of other safety precautions.
The overall mission of the program is to give new drivers the tools and time they need to become responsible.
Bernstein pointed out that there are many benefits to learning how to drive with mom and dad around.
“I can’t say whether or not it’s a good or bad thing that teens are delaying licensing. If they are doing so to avoid GDL, which ends at age 18, then they certainly open themselves to increased risk,” she said. “When a teen learns to drive and has strong parental support, risk is greatly reduced.”
Bernstein added that car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teens in the U.S., and they can happen as a result of driver inexperience.
Mosher agreed: “The GDL process and driver education are so critical in gaining necessary experience and preparing teens to be good, safe drivers, so we urge teens to go through this process.”
Although there are many logical reasons teens are waiting on their driver’s licenses, the practice and mentoring that comes along with old-fashioned driver’s education could be worth the investment.
Why the delay?
When unlicensed teens were asked why they were delaying the process here’s how they responded:
44% didn’t have a car
39% could get around without driving
36% said gas was too expensive
36% said driving was too expensive
35% said they just didn’t get around to it