Unlicensed to Drive

Unlicensed to Drive

Why fewer teens are hitting the road

Words by Christine Van Dyk

Illustration by Jane Fitzsimmons

The weather was chilly that November day, so I’d worn my favorite sweater—it was my 16th birthday after all. The DMV line was long with folks attempting to change an address or renew a license, but as a first-time driver, the day was far more significant for me. That small, laminated card was my key to a part-time job, going out with my friends, and experiencing the independence I was certain I was ready for.

In those days, more than half of the 16-year-olds in America got a driver’s license. According to the Federal Highway Administration, that number dropped to 43 percent in 1997, and by 2020 it was less than 25 percent. Despite the freedom portrayed in pop culture, America’s car obsession had hit its peak.

As a mom, I’ve pondered the question of teenage drivers. Are those who bypass this milestone delaying maturity? Are today’s kids too preoccupied with online pursuits to venture beyond their bedrooms? Or, are teens in a complicated world simply more aware of their own limitations?

“There are a myriad of reasons why teens aren’t driving,” Mary Jo McHaney, family therapist, says. “With rideshares there is less need, many can’t afford it, or they’re too busy. But one of the biggest reasons is an increased fear of driving.”

There’s always been an inherent danger with driving, so why are Gen Zers feeling it more deeply than ever before?

“This population of kids is more anxious than boomers or millennials,” Mary Jo says. “There’s more to be scared about—what they see on the internet, bullying on social media, living through a pandemic. The scarier things get, the less likely teens are to be engaged in the greater world.”

Mary Jo believes with the major culture changes the world has seen, kids simply need more time to mature.

Mom and hairdresser Suzie Beardsley has a different perspective.

“My son got his license the day after his 16th birthday, but that’s rare,” she said. “I have five teen clients and not one of them has a license. This generation of kids gets a trophy for participating; there is no incentive to push yourself, to be uncomfortable, to fail and try again.”

There isn’t a single reason to explain the downturn. Anxiety and a reluctance to enter adulthood can be factors, but this may be oversimplifying the trend.

To begin with, today’s teens are entering a far more competitive college process. AP classes, after-school activities, and SAT prep are prerequisites for admission, leaving little time for driving practice. “Lack of free time” was the reason 37 percent of respondents in a University of Michigan study said they delayed getting a license. That pressure to do well may also be the reason teens have far less time for summer and part-time jobs—the very means needed to afford a car, insurance, and gas.

Lastly, teens may not be driving because they simply don’t need to. With so many virtual options, there is less of a need for in-person interactions. Couple that with the rise of rideshare  apps and the improvements in public transportation, and you can see why so many aren’t rushing to get their license.

Recent college freshman Nat Olsen was 18 when he got his driver’s license. He says it’s because the time never seemed right. With difficult classes and extracurricular activities, he was simply too focused on other things to find time to drive. However, he feels the right age to drive is more about the individual and less about an arbitrary number.

“The ideal age varies between teenagers,” Nat said. “Some 16-year-olds are very able drivers, but some aren’t. I think by the time teenagers are 18, they have a firmer grasp on patience, level-headedness, and an alert mind.”

Whether it’s preparing to drive, going away to college, or getting a first job, it’s important kids develop the necessary skills to manage daily life and prepare for what’s next. That’s where parents and trusted adults play an important role.

10 tips for preparing teens for independence

  1. Encourage self-advocacy skills — Give your teen control of tasks, such as filling a prescription, making a doctor’s appointment, and meeting deadlines without reminding. Encourage professional encounters to be in person or by telephone, rather than texting.
  1. Walk the line between support and rescue — As teens get older, step back and let them take the lead. Instead of offering to help, say, “What support do you need?”
  1. Model good behavior — Kids learn by example. Wearing your seat belt and putting your phone away while driving shows teens how it’s done.
  2. Teach teens to manage real-world tasks — Learning to do laundry, cooking a meal, and changing a tire are basic life skills.
  1. Encourage good decision-making — Talk with your child about responding in ways that are thoughtful and considerate, not highly emotional. Big decisions are better made when we remain calm, consider the possible outcomes, and identify pros and cons.
  1. Develop self-help — Learning how to deal with stress is important for everyone. Talk about ways to self-soothe, manage tension, and assess the situation.
  1. Offer more compelling alternatives — Many teens fail to enter the “real world” because they’re so involved in their virtual ones. Instead of saying no, offer a more compellingalternative to the screen. Maybe it’s music, sports, a hobby, or a family game night.
  1. Avoid shaming — It’s a scary world. When your students refuse to hit a milestone, help them walk toward success without belittling them or comparing their experience to yours. If their fear has become debilitating, you may need to seek professional help.
  2. Validate — Whether it’s getting behind the wheel or preparing for college, teens need to know you’re confident in their abilities so they can own that confidence for themselves.
  1. Be prepared to be inconvenienced — Becoming an adult takes time and practice. Sometimes it means more involvement from you while they’re learning the ropes.