Reaching driving age doesn’t hold the magical allure it once did for teenagers, with fewer than half of them applying for a driver’s license when they reach legal age, according to a report issued Thursday by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Only 44 percent get a license within a year, and just over half of teenagers are licensed by the time they reach 18, an age at which two-thirds of teenagers were licensed 20 years ago.
The decline is attributed to a variety of factors. Some teens don’t bother because they have no access to a car; being licensed no longer holds the social status it once did for many young people; there are other ways to get where they want to go; and the cost of gas and auto insurance are too high.
The AAA research comes on the heels of preliminary indications that teenage highway fatalities increased dramatically last year, particularly among 16- and 17-year-olds. Data compiled by the Governors Highway Safety Association showed a 197 percent overall jump in the first six months of 2012.
The age at which states issue beginners’ licenses ranges from 14 to 16, with the District allowing them at 16, Virginia at six months after the 15th birthday and Maryland at nine months after a teen turns 15.
Most states have adopted graduated driver’s license (GDL) laws, which restrict teenagers during their initial years of driving. Thirty-one states ban cellphone use, among them the District, Maryland and Virginia.
All three local jurisdictions and 46 other states restrict teen driving at night. All three are among the 47 states that limit the number of passengers a teen can carry during the initial months of driving.
One consequence of the trend toward waiting until they’re 18 to get a license is that teenagers miss out on the restrictions that are intended to nurse them through the early months of driving.
“With one in three teens waiting to get their license until they turn 18, there’s a segment of this generation missing opportunities to learn under the safeguards that [graduated driver’s licensing] provides,” said Peter Kissinger, president of the nonprofit AAA foundation. “For most, it’s about not having a car or having alternatives for getting around that are the top reasons cited for delaying what has traditionally been considered to be a rite of passage.”
Earlier research by the AAA foundation found that states with GDL systems had experienced a 38 percent drop in fatal crashes involving 16-year-olds and a 40 percent reduction in crashes that resulted in injury.
The AAA survey results showed that low-income and minority teenagers are least likely to obtain a driver’s license before age 18. In households with incomes less than $20,000, only 25 percent of teenagers obtained their license before they turned 18. By contrast, 79 percent of teens were licensed by age 18 in households with incomes of $100,000 or more.
“It all boils down to economics. In many parts of the country and in the Washington metro area, driver education classes in public schools, once the primary method of teaching novice drivers to drive, are relics of the past,” said AAA spokesman John B. Townsend II.
“One of the unintended consequences of graduated driver’s licensing laws is that teens have to enroll in private-sector driving schools to complete their driver’s education requirements to obtain a driver’s license, and that can be extremely costly and prohibitive, especially for low-income teens,” Townsend said.
“In Northern Virginia, the cost of in-class instruction and behind-the-wheel training at private driving schools can range from $230 to $450,” he added. “In Maryland, the cost of in-class and in-car driving lessons ranges from $240 to almost $500. Other costs that would-be teen drivers face include purchasing and maintaining a car, insurance, and the rising cost of gasoline. It’s expensive now to drive, especially if you are a teen.”