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Licenses Take a Back Seat

As high schools cut driver's education, fewer teens are getting behind the wheel. Nerves and costly private lessons also factor in the trend.

December 02, 2004|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

Like most of her classmates at Laguna Hills High School, Kayte Greenfelder took driver's education at 16. She sat through the grainy old death-on-the-asphalt movies, memorized the handouts on rights-of-way and traffic signals, even went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and got a learner's permit.

Somehow, though, she never got around to actually getting her license. "I guess I was lazy -- plus, I couldn't afford the insurance, and standing in line at the DMV just felt like a big hassle," said Greenfelder, who at 19 still isn't driving.

But wasn't it embarrassing, year after year, being the only kid in the subdivision still bumming rides from her mother? Not really.

"I knew probably 20 other people just like me."

Getting a driver's license at 16 has long been a rite of passage. The learner's permit at 15, the hair-raising driving practice with the shrieking parent, the dreaded clipboard guy at the DMV administering the road test, the first sobering crash involving a classmate -- for better and worse, the rush for the license is so culturally enshrined that its particulars verge on cliche.

But quietly, while the adults weren't looking, kids have stopped driving at 16 the way they used to. In a shift that has overtaken the culture virtually without notice, a confluence of forces has redefined the concept of "driving age."

Poorer young people, tougher licensing laws, shifting teen attitudes, protective baby boom parents, soaring auto insurance premiums -- these and other factors appear to have conspired to keep not just most 16-year-olds, but more teens of all ages from driving.

Only 43% of all 16- and 17-year-old Americans were licensed in 2002, the last year for which statistics were available, according to the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Census Bureau. In 1992, that figure was nearly 52%. Meanwhile, in supposedly car-addicted California, teens are even less likely to be driving. Slightly less than 27% -- about 1 in 4 -- of the state's 16- and 17-year-olds were licensed last year, a figure that has been sliding since at least 1978, when it was 50.1%.

Yet for all its size, the phenomenon has largely eluded the cultural radar, even as it has left parents privately commiserating about kids who need to be chauffeured long after they've graduated from high school. Politicians still call for crackdowns on the supposed legions of reckless teen drivers. TV shows such as "The O.C." routinely depict teens driving. Pop and hip-hop songs about cars still get the level of airplay the Beach Boys did back when teens lived in fear that Daddy might actually take the T-Bird away.

This is in part because cars are still a big deal. Even with lowered proportions of young drivers, millions of adolescents remain on the freeways, and traffic crashes still are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds.

But it also may be because, as trends go, the decline in licensing has been slow speed and has reached critical mass only in the last decade. Raymond Peck, a Folsom-based traffic safety consultant who was chief of the California DMV's research and development branch until 2000, said the declining numbers had generally been regarded as an intriguing footnote to more pressing research on the effects of various traffic safety measures. "I'm not sure anyone in California has been aware of it except for a few people at the DMV."

In any case, it is making itself felt in places like suburban Orange County, where Manako Ihaya, a mother of four, recently bought a sporty red Honda in an attempt to entice her 18- and 20-year-old daughters to get licensed. So far, she said, they've ignored the bribe.

"As soon as I turned 16, I got my license," remembered Ihaya, who was born in Japan and grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. "If you didn't, it would have been like, 'What's wrong with you?' "

In Riverside, 16-year-old Kevin Wintersteen says he'd like a license, but he keeps hitting roadblocks.

"First, we didn't have the money for driving classes. Then we got the money, but on the day they had the classes, I had football practice and I didn't want to miss," he said. "Then I found this online class. And we sent $85 and they sent all this stuff. But then our Internet got messed up and it took three or four weeks for it to come back. Then the test you had to take to pass the class was pretty long, and each chapter was like 20 or 30 questions, and I was just doing a chapter, like, every now and then. And then when I finished it? We couldn't find an envelope ... "

Doing without, however, hasn't been as painful as he'd expected, the boy said. His mom drops him off every morning at his school's entrance, and his girlfriend, who is 18, provides the transportation when he goes out.

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