For high school junior Erin Olson, not having a driver’s license is an occasional hassle. Sometimes she has to bum a ride from a sibling or parents or just stay put.
“I feel like I still have that independence where I can go where I want,” she said. “In Mankato, we walk wherever we want to go. I feel like it’s better to walk and go on bike rides than to drive.”
Olson, 16, is in no rush to get her license, and she’s not alone.
According to a study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the percentage of all adults with a driver’s license has declined in recent decades. But the trend is strongest among teenagers.
In 1983, nearly half of American 16-year-olds had a driver’s license. By 2014, that had fallen to about a quarter of 16-year-olds.
The extent to which this trend applies to southern Minnesota is unclear. But the fact that Mankato is in a more rural area with less mass transit suggests fewer area teens wait, said Ryan Hammett, owner of the Mankato driving school Safety and Respect.
Most of his company’s older students come from outside of town, from places where it’s easier to get around without a car, he said.
Patrick Klubben, who has taught behind-the-wheel instruction at St. Peter Public Schools since 2000, said he has noticed the trend of teens waiting to get licensed.
Students have the option to finish their behind-the-wheel lessons before their 16th birthday, so they’re ready to take their driver’s exam as soon as they’re eligible. But fewer students feel the urgency to do so.
So far this year, of his 53 students, 29 of them, or 55 percent, finished his class after their birthday, meaning they couldn’t get their license right away. Klubben doesn’t have historical statistics but estimates that in the past only a quarter of students waited until they were 16 to finish behind-the-wheel lessons.
“Over my tenure, I’d say it’s doubled,” he said of the share of students who turn 16 before finishing their lessons.
What’s up with these kids? Aren’t car keys the universal teenage symbol for freedom from tyrannical parental authority?
Analyzing the behavior of millennials, especially by attributing it to vice, is basically a cottage industry. That said, Klubben has taught enough students to get a sense of why a driver’s license isn’t the draw it used to be.
First, the costs and responsibilities of driving are more emphasized today than they used to be.
“We teach in our program the cost of car insurance, and maintenance and gasoline,” Klubben said. “It takes some of the excitement away from them a little bit.”
Also, he said the newer generation’s “mentality is a little different.”
“Some don’t want that responsibility and avoid it,” he said of driving.
Cultural norms around parenting have changed, too. Klubben said parents are now more willing to chauffeur their teens. If someone is willing to drive you around, why go through the trouble and expense of getting licensed?
Olson, the Mankato teen, said her parents are willing to let her go at her own pace.
“They’re willing to take me around if I want to go somewhere.”
Safer to wait?
Might safer roads for everyone be a side effect of this trend? After all, the youngest drivers are the most dangerous, so it stands to reason that waiting would make them safer drivers.
Klubben isn’t so sure.
“Maturity is the most important thing. Some kids are mature enough to drive at 14 and other kids still aren’t mature enough at 17.”
There’s at least some evidence to back him up. The Seattle Times analyzed licensing data and found those who wait to get licensed on average get more tickets.
This may be because older drivers can sidestep the extra restrictions placed on 16- and 17-year-old drivers. Klubben said Minnesota now requires young drivers to spend 50 hours being supervised.
Once the parent is no longer required to be in the car, a teen’s accident rate more than doubles, he said.
Finally, Klubben believes teens are less prepared to drive because they are paying more attention to their phones and less to watching their parents drive. The onus to change that is on mom and dad, he said.
“You can’t just all of a sudden one day say, ‘Put the video games away and drive,’” he said. “Parents should be paying attention and going through various situations” as their teen is growing up.
Big change coming?
Klubben, who teaches industrial tech during the day, has been teaching kids to drive for 17 years. In another 17, this conversation might not even matter.
A car that can drive in at least well-mapped areas is expected to be sold to the public in the early 2020s. When an affordable fully autonomous car arrives is anyone’s guess. Klubben believes it will be for the best.
“When I’m driving down the road with a student and I see a mistake, I’ll say, ‘That mistake wouldn’t take place with a driverless car,’” he said.