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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Are teen drivers declining?

By Liam Bradford and Isabelle Parekh The Spokesman-Review

Teenage drivers are a subject that brings fright to many.

Teens are more likely to crash, forget rules, or lack driving etiquette.

So, it may be a relief to some that the number of teenage drivers, at least on a national scale, is decreasing.

According to a study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration, only 25% of American 16-year-olds and 42% of 17-year-olds had a license in 2021, compared to 43% and 67% in 1997.

A University of Michigan study conducted by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle showed a consistent decline in the percentage of drivers between the ages of 16-39 since 1983. While the percentage of licensed drivers above the age of 60 has increased by at least 10% in the last 40 years, the decline in teenage drivers was a uniform 20%.

“Overall, percentages are going down,” said Insurance Institute research scientist Rebecca Weast. “Teen crash fatalities and teen licensure have been decreasing … The reality is, getting a license is expensive, and adding barriers to entry has limited the ability of some teens to get a license.”

More than a few theories attempt to identify the cause of the decrease.

In another University of Michigan survey, the two most common reasons teens gave for not jumping at the opportunity to get a license were that they were “too busy” or that owning a car was “too expensive.”

Teenagers don’t get summer jobs as much as they used to, which means they don’t have the money for the expenses that come with getting a license: driver’s education, gas money, insurance money and potential auto-repair.

More and more kids are simply deeming those costs not worth the effort, especially when so many cities are investing heavy funds into public transport systems that will take them almost anywhere they need to go.

Plus, it’s good for the environment.

However, the most plausible cause is that the modern teenage lifestyle is far different than it used to be.

Parents are typically more involved and more concerned with consistent supervision than in past generations, and in return, their children are more reliant on their families.

While fewer than 30% of young adults ages 18-29 lived with their parents in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, nearly 50% were reported to be living with their parents in early 2020 – and that was before the pandemic. It’s no big surprise that these numbers correlate with an average 14.8% decline in this age group’s licensure.

Brooklynn Giblette, a 16-year-old Ridgeline High School senior, offered her reason for holding off on a license.

“Honestly, I’m a little bit scared of driving, and that might be because I feel like I’m not ready to grow up yet,” Giblette said. “I think that’s kind of due to COVID and missing some of high school. I don’t feel like I should be driving yet.

“You could literally crash at any moment and hurt yourself or hurt others, and that’s really scary to me.”

AJ Seitz, the owner of Spokane’s 911 Driving School, clarified that, though the national statistics may point to a decline in teenage drivers, the local numbers haven’t correlated with such a noticeable drop. In Spokane, it’s not as much a decline in drivers, but a shift in when people are choosing to take the course.

“Our classes are definitely filling, but what we are seeing is more adults, as in 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds that are taking the class,” Seitz said. “Sometimes they’re just waiting a little bit longer.”

“We’ve been seeing this since before COVID, where the parents would enroll them, and the kids were like, ‘yeah, I really don’t care about driving,’ but when we started back in 2006, that wasn’t the case at all … everyone was super interested to be here, and everyone wanted to drive.”

The pandemic only made things worse.

“When we have in-person classes, we usually have about a 90-92% pass rate on tests, and during COVID, when we had to do things online, it was probably around 28%.”

Teens struggled to find the motivation and focus when driver’s ed was online, as they did with online schooling and employment.

“I didn’t like the online driver’s ed because it took too long, and I could never finish it,” said Lakeland High School incoming senior Ella Haug. “I had to renew it several times. I am more engaged when doing something in person rather than online.”

Haug received her license Wednesday , her 17th birthday.

“The thing people assume is the problem, which I haven’t seen any evidence to support, is the proliferation of smartphones and social media,” Weast, the research scientist, said. “The story that people tell themselves is that teens would rather be at home using the internet than going places. But I have not seen any hard evidence to support this claim. Pinning the decrease on social media is short-sighted.”

Liam Bradford and Isabelle Parekh's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.