Sunday, Aug. 4, 1968 was a memorable day. The Mets lost to the Dodgers 2-0. The first Newport Pop Festival, the first big event of its kind to attract more than 100,000 people, took place in Costa Mesa, California — and the crowd roared to Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf … and Tiny Tim. A Cessna and a Convair collided in Minnesota and three people were killed. And, oh yeah, I turned 16.
It was a big problem, actually, because it was the weekend, which meant I couldn’t go down to the DMV and get my driver’s license. I wanted it really bad. I don’t think I slept at all the night before. At 8:30, when the office opened, I was there ready to take the written and oral parts of the test. I’d aced driver’s ed and memorized the rulebook, so I did fine and soon had the precious temporary permit.
In many states, there are now restrictions on teenage drivers that don’t let them drive their friends and such things, but none of that existed then. My identical twin brother (did I mention I have one of those?) and I drove the family Chevy II wagon to the Rhode Island border and back that day, just because we could. We were legal, and it was intoxicating. I owned a car within the month — the first of dozens of cheap beaters (Darts, Valiants, Chevy IIs) I’d have before turning 20.
I tell you all this because the fire that burned in me doesn’t seem to be there for today’s kids, including my own 17-year-old daughter, who will get around to driving one of these days. I want her to get a license more than she wants to get her license. She’s hardly alone — it’s a national trend.
Why the delay in teen interest in driving?
By 2008, the Department of Transportation was reporting that only 30.7 of 16-year-olds were getting their licenses, down from 45 percent in the 1980s. The Washington Post cites skyrocketing gas prices and the high cost of insurance, plus tons of homework. And those restrictions that prevent driving with your buddies in the car are considered onerous.
The Online Mom adds, “One of the more interesting factors delaying teen driving might be the changing shape of the average teenager’s social life. Today, teens need look no further than Facebook or other social networking sites to connect with their friends. They can also chat and play video games live. And they constantly text, sending as many as 10 messages an hour. There is simply less need, maybe less desire, to be able to grab the keys and go.”
A 19-year-old who didn’t get her license until her senior year in high school, told the Post, “If I couldn’t get a ride to see my friend who lives a town over I could talk on IM or Skype.”
I see this latter factor cited quite a lot, and though it’s rather anecdotal, it seems to ring true. Personally, I don’t find an IM to be an acceptable alternative to actually meeting friends, but that’s because I’m not in the demographic. I don’t fetishize my cellphone, or send 10 text messages an hour. But my daughter does both those things.
There are good things about all this. Sixteen-year-olds are scary drivers, anyway, because despite excellent reflexes, they’re dangerously distracted, not to mention prone to getting loaded for kicks. The crash rate for 16-year-old drivers is 3.7 times higher than for the general population, and car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers.
There’s a bright side. Teen non-driving reduces air pollution, traffic congestion vehicle miles traveled (VMT) the same way telecommuting does. Kids are inadvertent environmentalists! So if they want to sit on the couch and text instead of going down to the malt shop with their friends, maybe we should let them be.
The downside is I'm still acting, after all these years, as Dad's Taxi. A frequent destination is the phone store, because my daughter has an upgrade coming. I guess she'll be able to send 20 texts an hour now.