The Go-Nowhere Generation: For Teens, Facebook Trumps Driving

For many teenagers of the past, turning 16 was more than just a rite of passage; it meant freedom. The thrill of holding that small, shiny piece of plastic: a driver’s license. And while parents were (understandably) reluctant to turn over the car keys, that license was synonymous with independence. Even if the furthest place many teens drove each day was to the high school and back home, that little sliver of plastic represented a boundless future of travel and possibility. Road trips, Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway: the future was calling!

Despite the excitement I felt as a new driver, my friends and I were part of a dying trend. Over the last three decades, the rate at which teenagers obtain driver’s licenses has sharply declined. According to a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, in the early 1980s, 80 percent of teenagers had a license by age 18. As of 2008, that number had decreased to 65 percent.

Recent estimates suggest that the number of teenagers with driver’s licenses continues to fall.

A 2011 report by the Connecticut DMV estimated that less than half of all 17-year-olds had a license, a decline of nearly 10 percent in just three years.

A combination of factors may be to blame. Studies show that today’s youth are more risk adverse than previous generations, in part due to coming of age during a challenging state of the economy. And those sky-high gas prices sure don’t help. And thanks to high teenage traffic fatalities, fewer parents are willing to be new car buyers for their teenagers.

Are stricter teenage licensing requirements also to blame? In response to high teenage traffic fatalities, an increasing number of states are instituting strict driver education and licensing programs. When I got my license, all I had to do was pass a basic driving test, complete a classroom workshop and be 16 years old. Today, teenagers in the state of Virginia are required to complete a certain number of hours driving with adult supervision and be at least 16 years, 3 months.

Other states are far stricter. Maryland, for example, requires all teenagers to complete its “Rookie Driving” course. Drivers are issued provisional licenses upon successfully completing at least 60 hours of supervised driving with their parents, 10 hours of which must occur during the dawn/dusk hours. Provisional drivers are also not allowed to have passengers under the age of 18, unless they are siblings or accompanied by a supervising adult.

These restrictions are designed to reduce accidents by increasing experience.

While the current state of the economy and even stricter driving laws are pushing back the age at which teenagers obtain a license, the real culprit may be Facebook.

A recent article in the New York Times posited that social networking and technology are reducing teenagers’ desire to have a driver’s license. The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found a correlation between time spent on Facebook and the Internet and a delay in getting a license. “More time on Facebook probably means less time on the road,” Michael Sivak, a professor at theUniversityofMichigan, told the New York Times.

Thanks to all the driving restrictions, teenagers are more excited about the latest smartphone rather than a driver’s license. According to automobile safety expert David Preusser, a license is simply not as valuable as it once was. Preusser told the Hartford Courant last year that “Licenses are not as valuable … It’s somewhat less desirable, so fewer kids are going after it.”

Tell us: What do you think is responsible for the decline in teenagers with driver’s licenses?