Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: What’s up with teens today? Fewer want to drive

Student driver Courtney Barron adjusts the mirror before taking the wheel in Cary, N.C., last June. Fewer teens are getting their licenses right away.
Student driver Courtney Barron adjusts the mirror before taking the wheel in Cary, N.C., last June. Fewer teens are getting their licenses right away. The News & Observer

Getting a license and getting behind the wheel as soon as possible have been a teenage rite of passage forever.

Not so much any more, according to the latest federal figures.

Fewer than 1.1 million Americans 16 and younger had driver’s licenses in 2014, down from 1.7 million in 2009. The number is the lowest since the 1960s, when our population was far smaller, says the Federal Highway Administration.

In all, about 8.5 million teenagers had licenses, about 4 percent of all drivers. In car-crazy California, there were fewer than 69,000 drivers who were 16, and about 866,000 who were 19 or younger.

If you believe some analysts, the trend is due to a combination of social media and hard times. During the Great Recession, families couldn’t afford to give teens their own cars, and teens had less money to buy gas. As the economy recovers, teen driving is starting to pick up. But the social media revolution shows no signs of slowing. With incessant texting, fewer teens feel the need to meet up in person.

Or maybe some teens prefer being chauffeured around by helicopter parents. They may want to do their part on climate change by bicycling, walking and taking the bus instead. Or possibly the freedom of the open road isn’t as alluring.

That’s hard for me to fathom. I got my learner’s permit at 15. One of my lasting high school memories is of going for drives in the country, the wind blowing through my hair, Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” blasting from the 8-track. I’ve tried to forget the speeding ticket I got while headed to a concert and the fender-bender that happened on the rush back to school from lunch.

Though fewer teens are getting licenses, they still have higher fatality rates per mile driven than any other age group – three times higher than for drivers 20 and older. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, claiming more than 2,600 lives in 2014.

But that tragic toll is far less than the nearly 6,400 deaths in 1990. Cars have been built more safely and every state has passed “graduated licensing” laws that put young drivers under strict limits on when they can drive and who can be in the car with them. They have fewer limits as they get more experience behind the wheel.

If only teens would break their social media habit. We all know that distracted driving is incredibly dangerous, no matter how invincible young people might think they are. It never ceases to amaze when I see young drivers looking at their phones – while going 75 mph on Interstate 80.

However many teens get their licenses, we want them – and everyone else on the road – to be as safe as possible.

By the numbers

Licensed drivers who were 16, and those 19 and younger, for selected states in 2014:

  • California: 68,688, 865,897
  • Arizona: 20,168, 167,430
  • Colorado: 18,443, 150,778
  • Nevada: 5,530, 57,159
  • Oregon: 13,126, 97,265
  • Utah: 523, 80,878
  • Washington: 29,768, 204,344

Source: Federal Highway Administration